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[whitespace] Saving Private Ryan
War Movies Are Hell: The technical brilliance of Steven Spielberg's version of WWII is shamed by the moral simplicity of 'Saving Private Ryan.'

Spielberg's heart beats out his guts in 'Private Ryan'

By Richard von Busack

EVER WONDER what an 88mm shell can do to a man's body? Steven Spielberg must have, because he stages the image not once but many times in Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg's newest film is the most uncompromisingly ghastly WWII movie ever made, and the director deserves much praise for the authenticity of his gore. Certainly, only a filmmaker with his clout could get away with these scenes. His staging of the invasion of Europe in 1944 by the Allied Forces is dumbfounding--a literal blood bath.

Here is Spielberg at his technical best, recreating D-day on Omaha Beach with no cinematic euphemisms whatsoever. The first 30 minutes are pure and horrible, from the vomiting privates in the landing craft to the final clearing out of a pillbox 100 feet up a seaside cliff.

Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, use hand-held cameras and washed-out film stock to re-create period photography. The colors are as flat and grainy as digital photography, as though everything has been filtered through the mist of sand and water created by the explosions.

But there's nothing lyrical about this slaughter. One typical image: A newly one-armed man is seen in the background of a scene, his bloody, shattered stump exposed as he walks. He's not staggering, but he does have a fast, wobbly pace, like the gait of an angry drunk. At last, spinning on his ankle, he finds what he's looking for: his severed arm, which he picks up and walks off with, out of the frame and out of the film.

What can follow this sort of beginning? Unfortunately, Spielberg goes with his worst tendencies: his appalling sentimentality and manipulativeness. Tom Hanks plays Capt. Miller, the leader of a squad of U.S. Army Rangers, the predecessors to the Green Berets. Having barely survived the storming of Normandy, Miller is set on a new mission: to find one Pvt. Ryan (sensitive lummox Matt Damon), who parachuted in and hasn't been heard from since.

Miller, a soft-spoken civilian soldier, presides over a collection of Sundance wunderkinds, including Edward Burns (director of The Brothers McMullen), surprisingly likable when he isn't directing himself. Among the other men in the squad are the Donald Pleasence-ish Tom Sizemore as Horvath, the sarge; Vin Diesel and Adam Goldberg as standard war-movie ethnic G.I.s; and Jeremy Davies (Spanking the Monkey) as a shrimpy intellectual who eventually turns killer. Barry Pepper, a junior version of Christopher Walken, steals the show as an ace sharpshooter with a biblical bent.

Ryan (as elusive as the vanishing hero of Tim O'Brien's Vietnam-era novel Going After Cacciato) leads the troop deeper into German-held territory. The mission to rescue him is the heart in all of this killing. To make sure we get the point, Miller delivers a speech saying that finding Ryan is the one good thing they may be able to pull out of the war.

THE FICTIONAL Ryan's story is derived from two real-life wartime catastrophes. One was the tragedy of the five Sullivan brothers, who were lost in the Pacific aboard the USS Juneau in 1944. But the film follows more closely the story of Fritz Niland, a G.I. pulled out of Normandy after all three of his brothers were killed in action during one week.

What better way to prove the senselessness of war than to imagine what it was like for the mothers of these families? But Spielberg, a famed collector of Norman Rockwell's hyper-Americana paintings, has channeled a Rockwell notion of what Mrs. Ryan's home would look like.

The Sullivans, the 1944 version of the story of that monumentally ill-fated family, depicted gritty small-town railroad-yard life in Waterloo, Iowa. Director Lloyd Bacon (who grew up in San Jose) took the cameras off the back lot and headed into some half-rural neighborhoods in south LA. Spielberg returns to the back lot--Mrs. Ryan's farm looks like the Kansas spread in The Wizard of Oz.

And the farm scene sums up Saving Private Ryan: The new realism is blended with the old corn. At the very least, Saving Private Ryan will give younger viewers a lesson in what their grandfathers went through. And episode by episode, a bloody humor that seems very authentic emerges--in one sequence, the soldiers have to sort through a pile of dog tags to see if they can find Ryan's own.

Even so, the arch-patriotic beginning and ending at a military cemetery are much too much--a twist of the bayonet. Yes, I wept, just like I was supposed to, feeling like a worm in the presence of all those white crosses. When confronted by Spielberg's orchestrated guilt, it's good to remember something said by Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque, one of the interviewees in Studs Terkel's book "The Good War": "I hate it when they say, 'He gave his life for his country.' Nobody gives their life for anything. We steal the lives of these kids. We take it away from them."

Saving Private Ryan works as a historical recreation, but its moral simplicity shames its brilliant technology. The Germans are all lean, battle-hardened slimy killers, even the sick-comic one who begs for his life by saying "Fuck Hitler." (There's something to be said for the old 1950s cinematic convention of the soft-faced German boy in uniform.) Gen. George Marshall drops everything to get a boy out of combat; the boy refuses to leave, seeing a higher duty to his comrades.

This essentially confused film will leave audiences not just crushed but bewildered. They'll be perplexed by images that say, We must never let it happen again, and a plot that says, But it was all worth it.

The movie-fed myth of the necessity and inevitability of WWII had its purpose. It brought comfort to the millions who endured the conflict. Now that many of these millions are beyond the need of comfort, Saving Private Ryan tries to reawaken that old cinematic legend of good sacrifice. By putting a positive spin on the war, Saving Private Ryan shows the moral simplicity of kids playing soldiers.

Saving Private Ryan (R; 170 min.), directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Robert Rodat, photographed by Janusz Kaminski and starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore and Edward Burns, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the July 23-29, 1998 issue of Metro.

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