Remember war's glory, so often presented by Hollywood and popular fiction as the shiny, happy story of our good boys' hard-won triumph over evil? Forget all that, or at least consider instead the nearly unfathomable toll in human horror required to pay the ultimate price for our freedoms.
War is row upon row of baby-faced teen-agers slaughtered by gunfire at Omaha Beach, a dying soldier screaming for mama as his entrails spill onto the sand, another fighter retrieving a portion of a dripping arm that's just been blown off, others burning to death, a chaplain rushing around to administer last rites and a sea spitting up wave after wave of body parts, newly shed blood and dead fish.
War is hell. And Steven Spielberg uses those images and others to take us there and back during the grim, nearly half-hour simulation of D-Day action that opens "Saving Private Ryan." The grueling sequence is a testament to the celebrated director's craft as a celluloid sculptor of the highest order. It's also a genuine shocker, a scene so graphic and disturbing that an NC-17 rating wouldn't be inappropriate.
Spielberg, the visionary who gave us the rosy full-studio glow of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T." and the Indiana Jones trilogy, for his fourth film set during World War II was perfectly willing to experiment with handheld cameras, underwater shots, overexposures, blood-spattered lenses, skipped frames and other unconventional techniques. The result is unedited newsreel footage miraculously come to life.
Viewers thus are able to empathize with Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) as he sorts through the hellish torment and confusion of the landing, making critical strategic decisions about his platoon's survival as sand, surf, mud and bullets fly. Miller occasionally loses his hearing, a defense mechanism and believable response to the bone-numbing emotional fear of the moment. Pure determination, it seems, allowed the Americans to overtake the Germans.
Spielberg's latest masterwork, pairing America's director with '90s Everyman Tom Hanks, makes a natural companion piece to his similarly disturbing "Schindler's List." That film, released to unanimous acclaim in 1993, offered a vivid portrait of Nazi evil in full bloom, the threat that necessitated the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Miller's success during the attack brings an assignment -- issued from on high -- to rescue Private James Ryan (Matt Damon, hired before his "Good Will Hunting" triumph), a lost paratrooper and the sole surviving brother of four enlisted siblings from Iowa.
The good captain, a mystery man who has revealed little personal information to those under his command, puts together an eight-man team with tough Sergeant Horvath (underappreciated character actor Tom Sizemore), Brooklyn wise guy Private Reiben (indie director-actor Ed Burns), Bible-quoting Southern marksman Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) and combat virgin Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies of "Spanking the Monkey"), an Emerson-spouting intellectual.
It's tempting to criticize the pointedly multicultural balance of the group, also populated by Mellish (Adam Goldberg), a Jewish private, and Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), an Italian-American. Few false notes, though, are sounded as their camaraderie strengthens in the face of minor skirmishes, a near-mutiny, steadily mounting losses and a cataclysmic final battle.
Telling details begin to add up, too. The war-numbed Miller constantly attempts to still his trembling hand, and at one point sobs uncontrollably. "Every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel," he says. Hanks, although not an obvious choice for the role, is superb as a loyal, wise warrior possibly headed for a breakdown. Davies is entrancing as viewers' own stand-in, a man literally frozen in the face of relentless violence. Sizemore makes an indelible impression, as the loyal right-hand man willing to follow orders at any cost.
"Saving Private Ryan," the most brutal big-screen depiction of war since Oliver Stone's "Platoon" a dozen years ago, doubtless will stoke controversy, certainly for its graphic carnage. Spielberg, who bookends his war epic with images of an American flag and shots of an elderly man collapsing in tears while visiting the D-Day cemetery, nevertheless may be accused of pacifism, or at least a serious deficiency of patriotism. The truth, after all, isn't pretty. But it's hard to imagine a veteran of the Good War, or anyone else, complaining that Hollywood didn't get it right this time.