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Courage Under Fire

The first shot in Steven Spielberg's remarkable World War II epic Saving Private Ryan is an American flag with the sun behind it. It's a delicate, almost diaphanous image--the fabric has the transparent delicacy of a chrysalis. This is the perfect introduction to a movie about the fragility--and fortitude--of compassion...
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The first shot in Steven Spielberg's remarkable World War II epic Saving Private Ryan is an American flag with the sun behind it. It's a delicate, almost diaphanous image--the fabric has the transparent delicacy of a chrysalis. This is the perfect introduction to a movie about the fragility--and fortitude--of compassion in wartime. Spielberg puts us through the hair-trigger terrors of combat in a way no other filmmaker has ever dared, and yet there's a gentleness to his enterprise. He's interested in the humaneness that comes through the horror. His film is a paean to the good that survives.

The flag that we see in the beginning flies above the vast cemetery in Normandy honoring the fallen Allies. After a brief prologue we flash back to the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach, where many of the soldiers off the boats are instantly, agonizingly slaughtered. We can make out a few recurring figures in the ensuing inferno--such as Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), who is first revealed in close-up as a pair of trembling hands before the camera moves up to his ardent, tragic face. With waves of men falling around it, Miller's platoon of seven soldiers finally storms the beach to gain the high ground against the Germans. We feel every atrocious inch of their odyssey.

This opening sequence, in which thousands of men are splayed and pulverized, is perhaps the most wrenching battle scene ever filmed. It goes way beyond what we're used to in war movies. Even the greatest battles staged in film until now--in the work of such directors as Griffith, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Ford, Welles, and Peckinpah--had an overarching artfulness. The violence and terror had an aesthetic dimension--a horrid beauty and sometimes a nobility--that kept us from being entirely aghast at the awfulness of what we were watching.

Spielberg is attempting something much more punishingly immediate. For almost half an hour he puts us on Omaha Beach and refuses us any respite. We don't get any wisecracking Hollywoodisms to reassure us we are only watching a movie. Spielberg doesn't frame the soldiers as martyrs or heroes (though many are). We aren't made to feel that we are inside an artist's vision (though we are). Instead we seem to be looking at the collective nightmare of an entire generation of combatants--a horror show that has once again come startlingly to life.

If you go to the movies at all these days, you realize that filmmakers have become so giddy about the new visual and aural technologies--with their capacity for sensory onslaughts--that they've lost sight of what can really be achieved in bringing us shudderingly close to experience. When you watch Saving Private Ryan, especially in this opening Normandy sequence, you suddenly realize the sheer power of all that advanced sound-and-picture movie engineering. One reason there has never been another battle sequence like this one is that no filmmaker of Spielberg's gifts has ever had at his disposal such an arsenal of effects.

But there's another reason to be startled: Spielberg is the first director to connect up the Vietnam experience--as an experience of combat--with World War II. This is a radical move. We accept the gut-bucket gruesomeness in Vietnam movies because the nature of that war, and the ways in which it was brought into our homes on television, demand such treatment. To be "tasteful" or sentimental would be an affront. (The rage in those movies is a rage of national self-immolation.) But World War II movies have almost always lacked the explicit horror of Vietnam films because WWII is billed as The Last Good War. Its presentation was, and to a large extent continues to be, sanitized for mass consumption by Washington and Hollywood.

In Saving Private Ryan, the panorama is as excruciating as any Vietnam footage. The soldiers are splattered by bullets; their heads are blown from their shoulders in ripe red bursts. A man picks up his just-severed arm while another man's guts pour into the sand. The obscene squeal and thump of mortar is everywhere in the air.

For perhaps a minute in the middle of this sequence, Spielberg suddenly shuts down the din on the soundtrack as we watch Captain Miller numbly surveying the scene. The silence is even more sickening than the sounds of carnage. With his crack sniper Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), who recites scripture to himself before each kill, Miller finally knocks out a German machine gun nest. He looks back at the beach in the momentary calm. His sergeant (Tom Sizemore) says to him, "Quite a view," and that's when we see for the first time the corpse-strewn expanse of Omaha Beach. It's the deathly, reposeful image this relentless sequence has been building to all along, and it holds you: Hieronymous Bosch meets G.I. Joe.

A large number of films about WWII are in production or about to come out, including an adaptation of James Jones' The Thin Red Line. Many people have tried to explain this phenomenon by presuming that audiences are hankering for comprehensible war-movie conflicts with clearly marked heroes and villains. For such a conflict, the Vietnam war obviously won't do. Neither will the intergalactic variety--you can only take so many hyperspace shoot-outs.

But Saving Private Ryan isn't a reassuring alternative; it doesn't offer up the homilies that have drenched the morale-boosting WWII movies. By throwing off the impediments of a strictly patriotic agenda, Spielberg is free to function as an artist. By going back to a Good War and focusing so clearly on its carnage, he's putting forth the most obvious of positions: War is about killing people.

And yet Captain Miller's platoon is sent on a mission after Omaha Beach that connects with a deeper truth: War is about saving people. Miller is ordered by U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) to take his company behind German lines and somehow locate and bring to safety a Private Ryan (Matt Damon), who was part of a misguided 101st Airborne drop and whose three brothers have all been killed in different battle zones within days of each other. Miller risks his men's lives and his own to rescue and send home a single soldier--so that Ryan's mother in Iowa will still have a son. Miller has already lost 94 men in his command; he rationalizes their deaths by imagining the lives he will save in the long run. But the rescue of Private Ryan is a mission that bears no such scrutiny; no one in Miller's company can rationalize it, and few can abide it.

The platoon bears a superficial resemblance to the mixed-nuts brigades familiar from WWII movies. Besides the sergeant and Private Jackson, there's Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), the Jewish guy; Private Reiben (Ed Burns), the Brooklyn guy; Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), the medic guy; Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), the tough guy who tries to rescue little French children; and Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), the bookish guy who has never fired at anybody before. (He's our stand-in, like the youth in The Red Badge of Courage.) Even Private Ryan, when he's finally located, has the corn-fed all-American look we've seen in dozens of flag-waver flicks.

But Spielberg, and his screenwriter Robert Rodat, don't go in for overtly sentimental displays. On the surface these men may seem like stereotypes, but the actors give their roles a hard-edged authenticity. (As performers, they are on their own kind of mission.) We can see these soldiers are learning on the job how to make war. The youth and innocence they brought with them into combat has already slipped from their faces. They look prematurely old.

Tom Hanks has perhaps the most difficult role, and he brings it off with the best performance of his career. For most of the movie, Captain Miller is a cipher to his soldiers, but his unreachableness isn't a power play--it's just his way of not feeling too close to the men who may soon drop one by one before his eyes. And yet we can see in him what his platoon can't or can only intuit. War hasn't coarsened him; it's opened him to a deeper level of anguish. Away from his men, he breaks down sobbing. At one point he says, "Every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel." And yet we realize the irony in what he is saying: Killing is what will bring him home.

Saving Private Ryan doesn't pretend, as do so many war movies, that soldiers in the frenzy of battle are fighting for the noblest of motives or that only the virtuous survive. WWII may have been fought by the Allies for impeccable reasons, but Miller and his soldiers on their mission of mercy are thinking overwhelmingly about personal survival. There's something cauterizing--and yet liberating--about this view. For the Hollywood war movie, it represents a new and more transcendently honest approach to human experience.

And yet Spielberg, disdaining the easy cliches of war movies, understands the impulse that still makes us want to make sense of the senseless. He wants to memorialize these men but in a way that doesn't turn them into plaster saints. He wants to make them powerfully, confusedly human. The soldiers who grouse and die to save Private Ryan come to realize his rescue "is the only good thing we can take out of this shitty mess." It's a hard-won revelation designed to give meaning to a chaos they can no longer comprehend.

Ryan's survival is the measure of their sacrifice, and he must spend the rest of his life living up to what they have done. For Spielberg, the great romantic gesture in war is also the most necessary--it is the gesture toward decency. He commemorates the soldiers in that vast Normandy cemetery in the most absolute and honorable way possible. J

Saving Private Ryan
Directed by Steven Spielberg; with Tom Hanks, Ed Burns and Matt Damon.

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