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Weekly Alibi "Saving Private Ryan"

Dog Face Afternoon

By Devin D. O'Leary

JULY 27, 1998:  Steven Spielberg, I'm becoming more and more convinced, is America's most schizophrenic filmmaker. There are only two types of films Spielberg seems capable of making: maudlin, effects-heavy family entertainment (E.T., Hook, Jurassic Park) and epic, emotion-rending drama (The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List). Lately, Spielberg has settled into a rather predictable pattern. First he cranks out some slapdash money maker (The Lost World, say) and follows it up with a shameless Oscar grab (Amistad, say). When our boy Steven is cooking, there's no stopping him. But when he decides to suck, he does it big time. Can the innovator who brought us Schindler's List really be the same hack who made Hook? Hard to believe, isn't it? Well, Spielberg is back with Saving Private Ryan; and I'm pleased to say that, this time around, it's the good Spielberg of Schindler's fame and not the evil Spielberg of Hook infamy.

If Spielberg's intention with Schindler's List was to get Jewish people weeping uncontrollably, then his intention with Saving Private Ryan is to get World War II veterans weeping uncontrollably. Ryan begins with a D-Day bang on the beaches of Normandy. Tom Hanks is Captain Miller, a slate-faced, sad-eyed Army Ranger leading his troops into a suicidal raid on Omaha Beach. War films have never lacked for epic scope, but Spielberg lenses this monumental sequence with a size and weight that has never been seen on screen before. Spielberg tosses his trademark sweeping crane work for a gritty, hand-held look. As Captain Miller watches his troops be cut down by the hundreds, the film intermittently slows to a crawl and starts again with jarring speed, the sound fades, drops out entirely or roars to a shattering volume--all in an effort to isolate small, telling moments within the chaos of the D-Day invasion. It's a bold stylistic move for Spielberg, and he pulls it off with tremendous gravity. The film never flinches in its documentary-like portrait of war. This is Spielberg's bloodiest film, and one of the most graphic portraits of war ... since Paul Verhoeven's Soldier of Orange, I'm tempted to say, but the real answer is ever. While Saving Private Ryan never once looks away from the bloody, gut-strewn, legless, armless, brain-spattering truth of war, it is important to note that the film never exploits a moment of it.

After the mammoth, haunting staging of the invasion at Omaha Beach, Spielberg takes Captain Miller on a new assignment. It seems that three brothers have all been killed in the last few weeks of the war. Poor Mrs. Ryan in Iowa is about to receive three condolence letters from the Army. When the Chief of Staff finds out that Mrs. Ryan's fourth son, a paratrooper, is stuck behind enemy lines, Captain Miller is ordered to hand-pick a small squad and perform the title task. That Miller's new assignment (risk the lives of eight soldiers to possibly save one man) is a fool's quest is rarely in doubt. None of Miller's troop (including Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies and Giovanni Ribisi) want to take on this risky endeavor. The German forces are still in strong control of the French mainland, and this venture behind enemy lines is undoubtedly fraught with peril. Saving Private Ryan, both in film and in task, soon becomes more of a metaphor, though. Is there a certain importance in saving one single life in the midst of all this death?

Screenwriter Robert Rodat's résumé (consisting of the kiddy-flicks Tall Tale and Fly Away Home) certainly doesn't brand him as a writer of philosophical manly action films. Still, the script for Saving Private Ryan manages to steer clear of cliché, while filling all the traditional requirements of the war film genre--think The Dirty Dozen with a lot more crying. Spielberg and Rodat don't simply set up their characters just to knock them down. The typical "bomber squadron" films of the '40s and '50s were notorious for introducing dozens of colorful homegrown character types and then systematically offing them for maximum audience sympathy. Though you can expect one or two characters to go away by film's end, Saving Private Ryan isn't staffed with clay pigeons waiting to be bumped off. Some characters (like Jeremy Davies' greenhorn linguist) are well fleshed-out. The majority of the grunts, however, are seen as plain old working kids from America--none with any more or less important story to tell than any other GI. Acting is uniformly excellent. Tom Hanks, for one, is exceptionally good as the calm-mannered Army Cap whose nerves have actually been frayed down to the nubs. Hanks' name will be on the short list come Oscar time next year--and don't be too surprised to see him take home his third golden boy.

Saving Private Ryan isn't for everyone. Many will find themselves far too bummed out by the brutal truths and unflinching eye of Spielberg's camera. Others--veterans, certainly--will find themselves profoundly moved. The idea here is not to preach a "war is bad" mantra. I think we're all pretty aware of that by now. The message of Saving Private Ryan is a simple historical one--one that has rarely been driven home so pointedly. For every boy that made it home after World War II, there were a hundred who didn't. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg, you may now claim your Oscar and start work on Jurassic Park III. ?

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