Saving Private Ryan
directed by Steven Spielberg
(DreamWorks, 1998)

World War II movies have come a long way since World War II.

Originally used primarily as a propaganda tool to convince a war-weary public that a good cause was worth fighting -- even dying -- for, they've taken on the role of message film, or, in the case of Saving Private Ryan, multiple message film.

The first message delivered by Saving Private Ryan is that you've got to earn "it" -- "it" being defined as everything from "the big boat ride home" and your place here on earth to the respect of your peers and the love of those around you.

Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) is the one most called upon to "earn it," made painfully clear by the film's opening and ending, in which a much older Ryan breaks down at the grave of Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks). Miller was the officer assigned to take a squad behind enemy lines to retrieve Ryan, whom the army brass had decided to send home because his three brothers had already died in combat.

It's a questionable mission, and a questionable premise for a film, and the men in Miller's squad question it at length, as does Miller. But -- and here comes message No. 2 -- sometimes you have to follow orders even when they don't make any sense to you. It's a mantra the mysterious Miller is to preach to his men many times before Private Ryan is saved.

Message No. 3 -- "Sometimes there's no alternative but to pull the trigger" -- is a little harder to swallow, which may be why director Steven Spielberg felt compelled to shove it so hard down viewers' throats. Spielberg delivers message No. 3 numerous times and at great length, enough to put stretch marks on your willing suspension of disbelief.

But fortunately for Spielberg and for his audience, Saving Private Ryan is more than a message film. It's also a superb combat film, with possibly the most nerve-wracking battle footage ever committed to celluloid.

The first half hour focuses on Capt. Miller and the D-Day invasion in ways that war films up until now have been reluctant or unable to do. Especially effective are the sequences in which Miller loses his hearing, yet must bring his men safely onto the beach in spite of botched communications, supply failures and lack of support from advance troops.

Spielberg returns to battle mode near the end of his film with a holding action to save all holding actions. Again, the noise, blood and never-endingness of battle take their toll on the audience. There's no escapism in these combat scenes, which deliver a more powerful message than most of Spielberg's serious dialogue sequences. Maybe that should stand as a message to the director.

Saving Private Ryan was nominated for and won more awards than most actors, directors or technicians see in a lifetime.

It's big, it's bold, it's well-acted and superbly edited. It pulls no punches about war or the people who fight them and, best of all, it showcases Spielberg's talent for creating telling tableaus, like Ryan and Miller sitting at a sidewalk cafe table in a bombed-out village while Edith Piaf's voice drones mournfully in the background.

Say what you will about its flaws, when it comes to awards, Saving Private Ryan earned them.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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