Review: Saving Private Ryan

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz in 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films originally published 20 years ago by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for many years.

There are moments in Saving Private Ryan when the warfare becomes so intense and all-consuming that the very air seems filled with battle. Shrapnel hangs there, every shard in razor-sharp focus, as if molecules of the film itself had been startled out of the emulsion. “Din of battle” ceases to be a cliché and becomes an implacable, immediate truth, until the senses, along with reason, give up attempting to process the assault of information and sensation and a lulling roar of water fills our ears. No mainstream American film has ever painted a more horrific or documentarily persuasive picture of modern combat. And no Hollywood film within recent memory has achieved such richness and originality of texture, such a compelling amalgam of passionate human drama and awesome technique.

Among the many virtues of Steven Spielberg’s new movie is that, save for an ill-advised but probably inevitable framing episode set in the present, nothing about it suggests a Nineties take on something that happened half a century ago. The cast of characters could have stepped out of any contemporaneous World War II flick in which a squad of GIs from diverse backgrounds slog their way through a dirty mission, griping, schmoozing, dying, superhuman only in their mutually affirmed humanity. The war is not interpreted as the imposition of a corrupt Establishment with venal motives tricked up in patriotism; it’s still our Good War, though no less hell for that. The enemy isn’t the Master Race but simply the enemy, the other side. They’re tying to kill you. You’re tying to kill them. And occasionally the Americans in this movie do even when the other side is tying to surrender.

Modem-day prologue aside, Saving Private Ryan begins with a landing craft moving toward Omaha Beach on D-Day, an iron box bearing part of Captain John Miller’s (Tom Hanks) company into a storm of metal and fire. After a relentless 25-minute battle, a crucible that defines the absoluteness of slaughter much the way the opening massacre of The Wild Bunch redefined screen violence three decades ago, the film finds its premise. Somewhere in the heartland an American mother is about to get the news that three of her sons have died in action within a heartbeat of one another. A fourth, a paratrooper, may or may not still be alive somewhere in the Normandy countryside. Miller must lead a tattered squad in search of this man, a symbolic figure—but also, as a shattering visual poem of the homefront attests, some mother’s son—and rescue him, even if they all die trying.

That the film does full honor to the grandeur and also the wastefulness of this mission has a lot to do with the performance of Tom Hanks. He never violates the spirit of ensemble, and his co-players are impeccable, but his portrait of a supremely decent man remaining strong for the men in his charge even as the responsibility grinds him down is a gentle miracle, utterly free of sentimentality or sanctimoniousness. Salute him. — Richard T. Jameson