Monday, February 23, 2009


Lately, when Hollywood produces war movies, they focus on the debacle of Vietnam. Not director Steven Spielberg! Instead, the incredibly versatile helmer of "Jaws," "Schindler's List," "The Color Purple," and "Jurassic Park" impales a patriotic chapter of American history on a bayonet with his graphically realistic but otherwise sappy "Saving Private Ryan." "Saving Private Ryan" (**1/2 out of ****) ranks as a second-rate World War II movie with a first-class cast and top-notch production values that pass inspection with some of the most savage combat carnage ever lensed. As demeaning as this criticism sounds, "Saving Private Ryan" is one of the top 25 World War II movies. Unfortunately, the film contains so many glaring historical inaccuracies as well as wholly improbable plot contrivances that you wonder what Spielberg was thinking when he made it. Since "Saving Private Ryan" swamped moviegoers with cutting edge combat action, Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" and Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" have eclipsed it with even greater cutting edge violence.

If the story had been as memorable as the kinetic, blood-splattered battle scenes, "Saving Private Ryan" might have been a classic. Essentially, "Saving Private Ryan" is a ten-star movie until the U.S. Army gets off the beach and into France where it devolves into just another standard-issue G.I. Joe war epic. Anybody who knows anything about combat movies will cringe the first time that they see the hero parading about in a helmet with the captain's bars painted on the front like a bull's eye. This is an egregious error! During World War II, officers didn't advertise their presence in this manner for fear that an enemy sniper would single them out for a bullet in the head. Okay, I'd dismiss this lapse of realism as a dramatic liberty except the filmmakers raise the same point. A seasoned dogface (Vin Diesel) warns a rank amateur to stop saluting the captain for fear that a sniper will shoot the captain down.

Dispersed throughout the movie is the usual quota of Hallmark speeches about valor, loyalty, and redemption. These platitudes add little dimension beyond the obvious to the purely physical rat-a-tat-tat. Spielberg could have trimmed much of this sappy dialogue and upgraded his movie. Running nearly three hours in length, this rowdy, often profane World War II melodrama creates a deeper impression with is grotesque special effects than with its drab, sometimes improbable tale. Consider the scene in the town when the wall collapses between the Germans and the GIs and they stand with their arms brandished screaming at each like a Mexican stand-off. Come on, give me a break, in real life, either side would have opened up on each other. Similarly, letting Steamboat Willie go is another incredible lapse of believability.

Told from the perspective of the infantry, "Saving Private Ryan" shares in the grand tradition of Louis Milestone's classic "All Quiet on the Western Front," Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One," Lewis Milestone's "A Walk in the Sun," and William Wellman's "Background." Granted, none of them boasts the extreme combat that "Saving Private Ryan" commands, but they are solidly-made, engaging war movies with deeply personal stories. The muddled but high-minded screenplay by "Fly Away House" scenarist Robert Rodat follows a unit of U.S. Rangers on a dim-witted public relations mission to rescue an American paratrooper.

Captain Miller (Tom Hanks of "Forrest Gump") assembles a collection of stock characters to help him locate 101ST Airborne Paratrooper Private James Ryan of Iowa. Ryan (Matt Damon of "Good Will Hunting") has gotten lost behind enemy lines in the pre-dawn parachute drops that preceded the June 6th D-Day Normandy Invasion. When the War Department discovers that Ryan's two brothers bite the sand at Normandy and that the Japanese have killed a third sibling a week earlier, General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell of "Fargo") decides to pull the last Ryan out of action. Along the way, Miller's G.I.s complain about the irony of risking eight lives to save one guy.

Before "Saving Private Ryan" grinds to its sanguinary conclusion, the Biblical theme of singling out an individual from a multitude for redemption grows tedious. Spielberg and Rodat, along with uncredited scribes Scott Frank and Frank "The Shawshank Redemption" Darabont, seem confused. Are they making a fiercely repellent anti-war movie? Or have the drummed up a gung-ho Hong Kong style, kick-butt actioneer? They pile on enough blood and gore for a platoon of war movies. Bullets zip and zing by the hundreds giving death an impersonal omnipotence. Presumably, the filmmakers hoped their grisly depiction of combat would eviscerate the memories of those flag-waving John Wayne propaganda sagas. The sadistic horrors that occur in "Saving Private Ryan" seems more commercially than philosophically oriented. We don't think so much about how terrible war is as how miraculous it is to survive.

The first 24 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" dwells on the famous D-Day landing at Omaha Beach. Spielberg shows the baptism by fire that befell the seasick G.I.s as they waded ashore into a murderous Third Reich shooting gallery. This is the best part of this movie and guarantees it an immortal place in the ranks of all great combat epics. The last 40 minutes are pretty good and Spielberg has a surprise awaiting us at the end, but you won't like that surprise. After the scary, visceral D-Day prologue, the film settles down long enough for Miller to receive new orders. Eventually, Miller locates Ryan with a bunch of paratroopers guarding a bridge behind Nazi lines. Ryan refuses to leave his buddies in the lurch. Reluctantly, Miller and his squad prepare for the worst. This part of "Saving Private Ryan" has a lot of action, but it cannot compete with the 1960s ABC-TV show "Combat." Tom Sizemore makes a credible sergeant, but the usually dependable Edward Burns plays a soldier that would have been shot by his own men for disobeying orders. Tom Hanks' former teacher turned combat leader is a little too sentimental to be believable as is his inevitable demise. Many soldiers have commented--among them retired Joints Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell--that Miller and his men should have blown the bridge and retreated. Of course, had our heroes shown this much common sense there would have been no climactic battle.

Spielberg relies on elaborate visual gimmicks to strengthen his screen activities. The astonishing combat sequences have the compressed look of a video surveillance camera. The only thing that saves Spielberg is the politically incorrect way that the G.I.s shoot the surrendering Nazi troops. "Saving Private Ryan," for all its obvious flaws, still qualifies a movie any die-hard World War II fanatic should watch at least three times. It is still difficult to believe that for such a serious film, "Saving Private Ryan" contains several mistakes that ultimately undercuts its impact.