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By Donna Bowman, Noel Murray, and Jim Ridley

AUGUST 3, 1998:  In the late '70s and early '80s, Steven Spielberg became famous for movies that used the plot device of suburbia in peril to reaffirm the comfort and warmth of American life. In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, for example, the young protagonist Elliot learns to recognize stability and comfort in his suburban home only after he encounters an outer-space being who's trying desperately to return to his own home on some planet far away. The alien landing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind begins as a terrifying nightmare, but it becomes a transcendent experience when people use their shared social and spiritual heritage to make a leap of imagination.

In more recent years, with Schindler's List, Amistad, and now Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg has chosen to reach back to pivotal moments in history, searching for the roots of the freedom and security that his earlier films fundamentally assumed. His sense of wonder has matured into an awestruck reverence for the inexplicable particularities of history that lead to you, me, and the world we call home.

Saving Private Ryan reaches back into World War II's relative moral certainty to reveal the ambiguities and insoluble dilemmas of war in any age. Eight GIs, led by Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), are ordered by top brass to find a single paratrooper somewhere in the confused, disorienting, incommunicado Normandy invasion. Private James Ryan's three brothers have all been killed in action within the space of a few days. Ryan, played by Matt Damon, is being sent home to spare his mother the possibility that her entire family might be wiped out.

Miller's tiny company sets off across the French front after surviving what, for many Americans, was the salient event of the entire war: the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. The first half-hour of Spielberg's film is an infantry-level view of the unceasing carnage and utter confusion of that operation, and it is revolutionary filmmaking. Blood flecks the camera lens while horrific, strangely anonymous images appear and disappear like ghosts. No matter how often the viewer looks away, there is no way to gain any distance from what's happening onscreen; the battle seems to be happening in our guts. But Spielberg gives us a focus, a safe harbor, in the familiar face of Tom Hanks. And Hanks' character, Miller, gives the movie its thematic focus when he takes charge with the barest information and almost no resources to secure the beachhead. For the rest of the film he'll lead by making decisions based on the simple fact that indecision is death.

The great theme in Saving Private Ryan is the terrible calculus of war. Every soldier, and especially every officer, has to weigh somehow the short- and long-term goals of war with the moment-by-moment risk to life and limb. On Omaha Beach, to stop and reflect on the infinite value of one human life means failure; all Miller and the other survivors can do is carry on. But on the mission to save Ryan, the worth of one unknown soldier is equated to the known value of comrades in arms and proven friends. It makes as little sense as anything in war, and Reiben (Edward Burns) is the spokesman for this absurdity. But every moment demands a new accounting: A machine gun post must be assaulted to save troops advancing from the rear, while a little French girl can't be protected because she puts the mission in jeopardy. No constant neither individual survival nor the salvation of the world can justify all these calculations.

Tom Hanks has become our Jimmy Stewart, a man whose comic gifts illuminate his heroic ordinariness. He's the man we all hope to be when the moment comes to prove ourselves, rising to the occasion humbly. Hanks' performance here validates the many honors he has received throughout the '90s; he provides a perfect emotional center for this highly emotional story. The men he leads are the standard collection of war-movie types, but they're wonderfully played by some terrific young actors, notably Adam Goldberg as Mellish, a Jewish soldier who hates the Germans with an understandably personal rage, and Jeremy Davies as Upham, a would-be writer under fire for the first time.

The film has flaws, but somehow they make it seem all the more human and humble, and therefore embraceable. If Spielberg couldn't bring himself to restrain John Williams when the composer tries to pin up a fragile emotion with a sentimental trumpet flourish, we forgive him, because after what we've been through, maybe we want movie magic despite ourselves. If Robert Rodat's script gives in to self-conscious monologues after an hour of flawless characterization, we understand it as an homage to war-movie conventions.

And if Saving Private Ryan doesn't live up to the absolutes of blurb writers, we need to remember that it never claimed to be "the greatest war movie ever made." It does, however, take the entire genre of war moves, from All Quiet on the Western Front to Apocalypse Now, as its context. Spielberg adds to those films his own remarkable skill at listening to history and retelling its stories: He views the fight against Nazism in the same context as the fight against Communism, observing World War II from the wasteland beyond Vietnam.

Unlike Oliver Stone, who thinks he can eradicate our naivet by rubbing our noses in brutality, Spielberg understands that we learn best when we're told a compelling story. A movie might be a perfectly realistic depiction of war's horrors and inhumanity, but if it doesn't come in a watchable package, it will have no effect because no one will pay attention to it. Spielberg gives us an entertaining story, but not as the spoonful of sugar to help the truth go down; rather, he believes that the truth is in the story. In Saving Private Ryan, he tells the truth not only about war, but about every viewer's past. We owe our lives to a great cloud of martyrs, no matter what they understood as the motive for their deeds, and every moment of our lives should pay that debt.

Donna Bowman


Get with the program

You've probably seen this on TV grainy, slow-motion footage of a shouting family, over which a voice says, "Does your teenager seem sullen, depressed? Does he spend all his time in his room?" And you, at home, think, "Doesn't this describe every teenager?" But I've known more than one kid whose parents sent him to one of the "treatment centers" described in these commercials; and though I can't speak for everybody who's ever assayed adolescent mood correction, my friends mostly came back confused and angry. No matter how much trouble parents have communicating with their children, is outright behavior modification really the solution?

That's a question posed by the new horror film Disturbing Behavior, which fitfully offers clever satire on the teen caste system and on adults' concern that their kids are hanging with "the wrong crowd." James Marsden stars as Steve, a sullen high-schooler whose family moves to the idyllic island village of Cradle Bay. On his first day at Cradle Bay High, he meets Gavin (Nick Stahl), a pot-smoking underachiever with a gift for dissecting the school's many cliques. Gavin points out the skaters, the auto-shoppers, and the geeks; above all, he warns Steve away from "the blue ribbons," a clean-cut band of letter-sweater community activists who appear to represent some twisted memory of a '50s that never was.

Which, of course, they do. As it happens, the Blue Ribbons are victims of a perverse mind-control experiment, wherein the seemingly benign Dr. Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood) has, at their parents' request, placed a chip in the teens' brains that channels all of their hormonal energy into athletics, studying, and bake sales. But if the chip goes haywire (as it does whenever the kids get horny; which is to say, frequently), the "perfect kids" turn into adrenaline-fueled, skull-crushing maniacs.

Disturbing Behavior is a horror film of ideas, like Dawn of the Dead, The Stepford Wives, or all three adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Although it is nowhere near as good as any of those predecessors, director David Nutter and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg deserve credit for avoiding the temptation to grind out a quickie teen-slasher flick. They should also be praised for finding Nick Stahl, a quirky young actor whose sardonic commentary in the film's early scenes never fails to amuse.

Unfortunately, after a half-hour or so, the film's focus shifts back to our hero Steve, who as played by the blandly handsome Marsden never seems unique enough to worry about. Making matters worse, he's paired up with a mumbly punk girl (Katie Holmes, from Dawson's Creek), who seems to have no personality to modify. Between their absent charisma, and Nutter's inability to work up a good shock scene, Disturbing Behavior collapses into tedium during the homestretch.

The real problem, though, is that Nutter and Rosenberg's welcome commentary on the cult of child therapy never develops any real teeth. We never get into the mind-set of parents who long for the sort of ideal family that they've seen on TV. Meanwhile, Caldicott is so obviously evil, and the Blue Ribbons are so blatantly cranked, that the film never approaches that creepy edge of reality that makes other "idea-based" horror films so unnerving. Which begs the question is there a program for films that aren't as good as they should be?

Noel Murray


Monster mash

Ray Harryhausen may be the only auteur in the history of movies who never directed, wrote, or acted in any of his films. A special-effects wizard whose credits belie his influence, Harryhausen worked throughout his career with weak scripts and journeyman directors. But the vision behind classic fantasies such as Jason and the Argonauts is unmistakably his; by the time of 1981's Clash of the Titans, his name on a picture still carried more weight than the director's or any of the stars'. As part of its fun "Summer Camp" sci-fi retrospective, the Watkins Belcourt shows four of his films, offering contemporary viewers a rare big-screen look at the fantasy master's work.

A cult hero to postwar, preteen movie geeks many of whom now run Hollywood's biggest effects houses Harryhausen saw King Kong when he was 13 and was transfixed. He later worked as an assistant to King Kong's pioneering stop-motion animation expert, Willis O'Brien, on 1949's Mighty Joe Young. With O'Brien, Harryhausen shared a sympathy with monstrous misfits; he also loved the spectacle of these beasts in collision with outsize man-made monuments.

His 1957 thriller 20 Million Miles to Earth which plays Sunday through Tuesday on a double bill with his 1964 First Men in the Moon features one of his niftiest creations, the Ymir, a reptilian humanoid from Venus that grows huge after landing on Earth. (It has something to do with sodium.) Flicking its scaly tail, the Ymir battles an elephant before defying bazookas and artillery atop the Colosseum. Yet the creature, not astronaut William Hopper, is clearly the hero: As animated, he has wit and charisma, and like many Harryhausen monsters, he's more a baffled outsider than a hell-bent conqueror.

Not that Harryhausen couldn't do those too. Neither Independence Day nor Mars Attacks could top the low-tech grandeur and streamlined design of the marauding alien warships in 1956's Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Aug. 9-11), which still contains the movies' most convincing destruction of Washington, D.C. And the octopus that dismantles the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955's It Came From Beneath the Sea (Aug. 9-11) is nearly as impressive even if Harryhausen had to trim two tentacles to save bucks.

Computer-generated effects have made creature movement and large-scale destruction more seamless since Harryhausen's reign. But the effects in Godzilla and ID4 have no weight: There's no sense of physical mass or three-dimensional space in their photographic mayhem and precious little wonder. By moving his sculptured beasts and skeletons one frame at a time to create the illusion of motion, Ray Harryhausen breathed life into inanimate objects; he made steel move like sinew and rubber move like skin. In so doing, he made movie-making into something very much like magic.

Jim Ridley


Dirty work

Thanks to the proliferation of wage slaves-turned-indie filmmakers, we're getting more movies than ever about lousy jobs. Clockwatchers, director Jill Sprechen's dark-humored comedy-drama, surveys the thankless lot of four corporate temps, who are alternately ignored, oppressed, and persecuted by the "permanents" at amorphous Global Credit. Here, as in The Spanish Prisoner and In the Company of Men, the workplace is a minefield of bureaucratic menace, and workers eye their colleagues with suspicion all the while doing as little actual work as possible.

There are no slackers in the cast, though. Lisa Kudrow adds pathos to her patented ditz routine, and Parker Posey spits out tart-tongued lines like bites of poisoned apple. As director, Sprechen has a keen sense of how staffers seize upon petty internal squabbles to alleviate tedium. When a day gig is this dull, the theft of office supplies becomes high drama.

But the script, which she cowrote with her sister Karen, is a mopey mix of sitcom, satire, and soap opera. Worse, Sprechen falls back on two all-too-common indie conventions self-conscious, unnecessary narration and facetious cartoon expressionism that are dead giveaways a director doesn't know what she's doing. (The narration in particular throws a soggy blanket over the movie.) Still, whenever chirpy Muzak wafts through the speakers, or when a supply manager throws a fit about doling out an extra pen, any office drudge past or present is bound to flinch.

Jim Ridley


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