Heroic Proportions

At the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a group of American soldiers landing on Omaha Beach, on D day, face a hell like none other on this earth. As the front gate of the landing-ship drops, German machine-gunners sitting in a bunker above the beach open fire, and many men fall at the exposed mouth of the craft. Some of the Americans – they are Army Rangers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) – jump over the side and get hit under the water (we can actually see the bullets, slowed down by the sea, striking their targets). Many who make it out of the boats die in the first few yards of sand. One man still standing searches for his severed arm, picks it up as if it were a log, and wanders around with it aimlessly. As all this goes on, Spielberg rapidly shifts from one nightmare to another: When we are under the water, or inside the head of a stunned soldier, the sound collapses into an indistinct roar; the next second we are above the water, or back in the head of that soldier, now fully conscious, and the noise of bullets and mortar has a cutting metallic shriek that approaches agony. The scene is both utterly realistic and entirely hallucinatory. The camera staggers violently, as in a newsreel. The desaturated cinematography has the grayish shades of a corpse.

Before you have watched more than a few minutes of this – and the sequence goes on for perhaps twenty minutes in all – you know that it is one of the greatest, most appalling things ever done in movies. Not just the violence, but the strangeness of it, is overwhelming. In literature, Homer and Tolstoy have attained a comparable cruel magnificence, but there are things here that literature cannot do – a sense of the simultaneity of many little dramas within the struggle to claim the beach; complex shifts of expectation and emotion that occur in just a second or two; and, in every shot, a blood-pounding rage, senses straining to the utmost, which brings men close to extinction and ecstasy at the same time. In this one scene, and in another battle at the end, Spielberg knocks into oblivion every World War II movie ever made; and not even Platoon or Full Metal Jacket has brought us so close to the experience of men facing live fire at close range. He has also performed, intentionally or not, a devastating critique of what passes for action-film-making in Hollywood these days. I suspect that such ersatz directors as Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever) and Michael Bay (Armageddon) have hides thicker than armor; if I am wrong, and they have normal skin, they must know by now that their way of making pictures has just been plugged through the heart.

This is a marvelous movie, with superb things throughout, though it needs to be said that the material between the two battle scenes isn’t on their transcendent level. Some of it is merely alert, sensitive, and shrewd; and some of it is dully ceremonial (there’s a patriotic framing device that could easily have been dropped). Saving Private Ryan, which was conceived and written by Robert Rodat, has its oddities of form and emphasis. It begins as an epic, changes into a peculiar little anecdote, and works toward a kind of moral fable – an attempt to say what the war means. After Omaha Beach has been secured, the captain and some of his men are sent on a special mission. It seems that three brothers from Iowa have been killed; the Army wants the fourth brother, Private Ryan, pulled out of the war and sent home. In part, the rescue is a solemn public-relations exercise, but General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) truly considers it the only humane thing to do. In France, Captain Miller’s men see it differently; the pursuit of Ryan makes no sense to them (eight of them sent to find one man?); they have two or three testy arguments about it, but they follow orders. Looking for Ryan, they wander through ravaged French fields and villages, fight the Germans here and there, and fall into punishing adventures. When they at last find Ryan (Matt Damon), he doesn’t want to be saved.

The search for Ryan borders on absurdity – at one point, the captain, exasperated, starts asking distraught French refugees about him – yet this is anything but an absurdist movie. The themes of Saving Private Ryan are loyalty, self-sacrifice, and death. The business of saving a single soldier gets folded into a larger question: What is the value of a decent gesture – any decent gesture – in war? And we think to ourselves: What could be the value of a decent gesture after what we’ve seen on Omaha Beach, where life was both enlarged and reduced to a condition of frenzy? The question is explored in different ways, each intensely moving. In a shattered French village, a terrified couple, standing on the exposed second floor of their house (the wall has been blown away), hand a little girl to the Americans for her protection. The girl cries that she doesn’t want to leave her parents, and the captain doesn’t want to take her – the Ranger who grabs her, against orders, exposes himself to enemy fire. Spielberg stages the scene without an extra shot and without a false emotion, and the episode has a wrenching painfulness that goes miles beyond the conventional heroics of war movies.

In such films as Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple, Spielberg hyped everything into airily beautiful images that often left us baffled. All those people gamboling about in the broiling southern sun in The Color Purple – was he crazy? There seemed to be something deficient and Disneyfied in his sense of reality. And it was hard not to view that deficiency in moral terms: This man had grown up at the movies; he didn’t know life. Well, the problem has vanished. Like everything Spielberg does, the staging of the small encounters and skirmishes in Saving Private Ryan has tremendous physical energy, but his work has become soberly exact – which means, since this is war, close to crazy: A soldier, standing near an opening in a wall, with live fire all around him, picks up one little apple after another, chomping into them, discarding them, trying to find one that tastes good. Soldiers are always hungry, and this one’s choosiness makes the scene funny.

Spielberg lets a movie breathe now, and sometimes he prolongs moments to the point of discomforting us. After all the years of meaningless movie violence, he wants us to feel some sort of pain. There is anger here, directed at the triviality of other movies. The old John Wayne and Dana Andrews war pictures made death clean and noble; this one makes it squalid and bloody – and noble. When the medic in the platoon gets shot, the men crowd around, laying on hands, and ask him what they should do to help – he would know that. It’s a classic episode: It plays in real time, with a gathering tension of fear and hope, and then the certainty of death.

No doubt there will be a kind of resistance: Someone is sure to say that Saving Private Ryan is “only” a platoon movie. It is true that the men are separated, as convention dictates, by temperament and ethnic background. There is a Jew (Adam Goldberg), an Italian (Vin Diesel), a southern Bible-quoting sharpshooter (Barry Pepper), a Brooklyn wiseguy (Ed Burns) who complains a lot. The men know one another intimately, but Spielberg wisely soft-peddles the bitching and jokes. (It helps that the actors aren’t familiar; a new face keeps cliché at a distance.) Young Jeremy Davies (from Spanking the Monkey) plays a skinny, nervous translator who gets pulled into this tough combat unit, and he’s certainly not a cliché. He represents the audience – he’s terrified – and when he freezes at the crucial instant, he forces us into a moment of grim self-recognition. Two characters are heroic in ways that most of us can’t approach or even understand – a tough sergeant, played by that great, round-faced thug Tom Sizemore, and the captain himself, whom the sergeant hopelessly adores and tries to protect.

Hanks is 42. The goofy grin and springy legs are gone; he’s a sadder, more realistic presence now, and certainly the right actor to play an ordinary man raised to greatness by war. He doesn’t carry the heroic presence or the mythic associations of an action star. He’s mostly very quiet, but he has true authority: When he gives an order, there’s just enough pressure in his voice to make you understand why the men follow him. Throughout the movie, the horror and strangeness of war play off his face, which registers tiny shifts of tension and disgust. Only one of his scenes doesn’t work for me – the one set in a candlelit church, at night, when he justifies a questionable decision, and the writing and playing become too explicit.

How can so painful a movie also be so exciting and pleasurable? Let me mention one factor: Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s great cameraman, shoots from the middle of the action with a handheld camera, and much of the footage is rough. Yet Spielberg has so scrupulous a sense of the geography of a scene (the Germans are here, the Americans have to get there) that the footage, edited by Michael Kahn, hangs together beautifully, and we are desperately involved, not just stimulated. That spatial coherence is what some of us have missed in the nonsensical action movies turned out by Hollywood. Spielberg has taken us back to basics – back to art, back to amazement at the film medium itself.

Heroic Proportions