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Review: 'Saving Private Ryan'

July 30, 1998

Jason MyersBy JASON MYERS

"War educates the senses," Corp. Upham (Jeremy Davies) quotes Emerson to his captain, John Miller (Tom Hanks).

In modern film, battle, be it on the field or streets, is intended to entertain the senses.

Blood is the anesthesia that spills over the screen and numbs our sense of real life and pain.

"Saving Private Ryan" does not entertain notions of entertainment - it tells a solid story and features sequences rousing and heartrending; but it is not a vehicle for enjoyment.

It is a ride through the brine and bile of battle.

The violence here is not exciting - it is desensitizing, a retardation of the senses.

It does not glow like a hotel vacancy sign as so many movies invite you into their splatter. One of the poetic aspects of Janusz Kaminski's phosphorescent photography is the way in which it conjures the colors of war - the rusted reds of blood swaying in the surf, the autumn browns and greens of terrain and fatigues.

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Within seconds of the opening credits, Steven Spielberg, at the apex of his ability, drops us onto Omaha Beach for a witness of D-Day unlike the sugar-coated glazes of heroism we are accustomed to. For 40 minutes, the viewer attacks and is attacked.

"Saving Private Ryan" is an existentialist vision of war, with an intensity and intimacy unlike any director has created before.

Until now, the best battle scenes in cinema have not been accurate depictions of modern combat - rather sterling displays of ancient battle. The rousing spectacle of "Spartacus" and "Braveheart" engaged us in the orchestra of fighting as linear movement; one regiment, then another, the arrows then the swords.

"Saving Private Ryan" immerses the viewer within the incongruity and immediacy of machine guns and shrapnel. The camera dives under water as bullets whizz by. It jostles and is pelted by blood and dirt.

For several minutes, we are without context, only contained within the sheer horror of limbs and mines and guns and death.

Michael Kahn edits these scenes to appear both seamless and senseless. You marvel at the accurate, flawless recreation of war, and you marvel at how pointless it seems.

The moviegoer is accustomed to dark, cynical filmic representations of the Vietnam War; but this is the first time The Last Great War has been treated with anything other than pomp and pageantry. For the first time, we sense the mire behind the myth. Slowly from amidst the corpses and corporals, Tom Hanks finally does emerge, and we realize that this is, after all, a Steven Spielberg movie.

The invasion ends, the viewer breathes, and a sentimental story begins. Spielberg is not confident in his abilities as a visualist, at least not at their extent, so we must suffer the narrative of Robert Rodat.

His script is as absurd as it is conventional. As the United States armed forces discover that three boys from one family have died, they decide it's their duty to rescue the fourth and final, James Ryan (Matt Damon).

Hanks is just so strong an actor to carry us through the shortcomings of Rodat's script and the shortcuts of Spielberg's direction. We watch his trembling hand and hear his doubts, and in the movie Captain Miller comes to represent Everyman just as Hanks does.

This is also one of his most specific performances. There's a scene toward the end that Hanks fills with such quiet despair that it was as unnerving the loudest moments of the movie. Having finally found Private Ryan, after a few deaths and harrowing hardships, the Captain simply wants a cup of coffee to calm his nerves and steady his hands. Checking two large pots, however, he finds them both empty. The look on Hanks' face of frustration and perplexity is touching and totemic.

Outside, Edith Pilaf sings a sad song, and the soldiers rest in a decadent French village, anticipating Germans. After an hour and a half of relative calm - if you consider the sudden ambush and occasional mortar attack calm - we are hurled back to hell. Depending on your perspective, the closing 40 minutes are more disturbing than the first 40, for now we know the people who bullets and terror tear through.

Spielberg could have achieved something transcendent had he not established the movie between bookends, each set in modern day as an old man and his family visit a cemetery. These brief scenes are like airbags: expected, comforting and as harmful as they are helpful.

The greatness of the film is in its unflinching penetration of the mind and body of the modern soldier.

What Spielberg embellishes are the senses - he cannot rely on the past as present. Kaminski has bleached the film so that everything is faded. What does not fade is the impact of the film; what does is the loose ends.

Jason is a 1998 graduate of North Hagerstown High School.

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