'Saving Private Ryan' Is Spielberg's Finest Couple Of Hours.
By Emil Franzi
TROOPS VOMITING IN a landing barge, blood-stained letters, dog tags of the dead used as poker chips, rain drops falling on leaves to the sound of distant gunfire, chewing gum passing mouth to mouth, unraveling intestines, Edith Piaf, pulsing arteries--these are the images of Steven Spielberg's WW II masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan.
It's not politically correct today to like war movies unless they make Americans or American policy look bad. Spielberg, however, understands that in an earlier time Americans had a different attitude, value system, national purpose and some real leaders we actually admired. And with this mastery, the man who brought us Schindler's List has given us another magnificent piece of cinema.
Earlier WW II movies are not negated by Spielberg's realism. Those classics like A Walk in the Sun, Battleground and Sands of Iwo Jima are part of the same heritage. What Spielberg gives us is more depth, the perspective of time, and the advantages of both greater technology and realism not available to earlier filmmakers.
In the chaotic horrors depicted in the first 20 minutes, we see--and of equal importance, hear--combat as it really is. Though one should qualify: Today's hyper-realist approach to filmmaking should not negate those earlier efforts equally reflective of their time. If Psycho or Casablanca were made today, would we expect to see Janet Leigh's character actually dismembered, instead of blood merely running down the drain? Would Bogie and Ingrid be doing more than just kissing? Would that make a better movie? No.
But Saving Private Ryan is technically stunning--about that there is no dispute. Of equal importance to the visual is the audio. Don't wait to play this on your VCR--you'll lose the effect. And see it in a theater with DTS. The combination of close-ups, eye-level cameras, and digital sound is a major achievement in itself. And the historical accuracy is precise, from the vehicles and weapons to the jargon. The John Williams score is subtle, effective, and sparingly used.
But this is about much more than a close-up of the horrors of war. The film contains many subtleties that will be discussed for years. One friend described the story as "the Danny Boy legend meets the Seven Samurai." It opens with a poignant view of an old veteran approaching a Normandy cemetery with his family. That scene carries the film's moral thrust, but is almost forgotten until the moving ending through a series of images that sear your brain.
The story unfolds around the discovery that three of four Ryan brothers have been killed in combat. One Ryan is left--a paratrooper somewhere behind German lines. The decision is made at the highest level to send a small group of Rangers to find him and bring him home. The leader of this small group is played brilliantly by Tom Hanks. While some may find this needle-in-a-haystack hunt a contrived device, it reflects Spielberg's knowledge of the values of the times, namely that risking lives for a principle is the right thing to do.
As the hunt for Ryan proceeds, we watch the characters develop. With the exception of Matt Damon as Private Ryan, most of the characters are played by actors we don't know. I expect after this, we will.
One character is a coward, and Spielberg resists using the cliché that turns him brave, allowing him to be despised. The others you hope will survive.
While women have only minor parts in this film, they have major roles in the overall plot. It's a woman who discovers that three Ryans have been killed in action. Ryan's mother, who's shown briefly and says nothing, is the key to the whole story. References to mothers abound; and Hanks' character states his desire to "just get back to his wife." The film's final scene involves an old veteran seeking validation for his life from his wife. Anyone not moved to tears by this scene has no soul.
This is a truly great film, perhaps Spielberg's finest effort. It tells us exactly what it was our fathers and grandfathers and brothers and uncles and cousins had to do to preserve our nation and our freedoms. This ain't Platoon.
Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Books | Cinema | Back Page | Archives
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth