(director: Steven Spielberg; screenwriter: Robert Rodat; cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski; editor: Michael Kahn; cast: Tom Hanks (Capt. John Miller), Tom Sizemore (Sgt. Horvath), Ed Burns (Pvt. Reiben), Adam Goldberg (Pvt. Mellish), Jefferies Davis (Cpl. Upham), Vin Diesel (Pvt. Caparzo), Matt Damon (Pvt. Ryan); Runtime: 170; Dreamworks SKG/Paramount Pictures; 1998)

An instant classic.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An instant classic. The WW11 story of the Americans landing on bloody Omaha Beach for D-Day. Tom Hanks is the captain on the boat telling his Ranger troops that he’ll see them on the beach. This is an old-fashioned war story, except for the bloody graphic details of the war that is realistically shown probably more than any other film to date. The film successfully takes aim at the horrors of war, showing how the boys we knew back home have become killers as we witness how the war brings about unimaginable human suffering. For the first 30-minutes you see this carnage as the men try to land on the beach: the men drowning when jumping off the transport boats, arms and other body parts floating by them, the utter fear and indecisiveness of the moment, and the pain of being shot. It’s all vividly photographed. This scene of unrelenting horror, brings us as close to the war zone as we can get without being there. The sounds you hear, that makes the talk among the men almost inaudible, are the guns of war just like it is in actual combat. Ninety-five percent of the first wave of men to land on the beach were either killed or wounded (In the first two attacks on the beach only 15 men survived out of 5,000, which should give you an idea of how bloody the actual battle scene was).

From this zenith in filmmaking history, the story calms and becomes more conventional. We follow Hanks and the men who were lucky enough to survive. They are given the almost impossible mission of finding a Private Ryan who is in an airborne unit that just landed on the vast battle theater in France. They are ordered to bring him home from the war and spare his family any more grief than what has already been experienced. The family has already suffered the death of all his three brothers, in recent skirmishes. This is an assignment that they do not relish (they would rather be fighting the war) and they bitch and gripe, but they carry out their duty which is an important sub-theme of the film. The men did what they had to do.

This is not really an anti-war film as Spielberg would like us to think, but it is more likely a film about how difficult it is to be in a war and how necessary it is to fight for our freedom when called upon; in fact, it is just like all the other war films (waving the flag and all that sort of stuff) except for the explicit battle scenes shown in the opening. It is a film about the citizen soldier who just wants to survive, who experiences chilling things in combat that are very difficult to put into proper prospective. It is about a country that has been involved in recent wars that were not fully accepted by the public and has, perhaps, forgotten how gallantly the men of the WW11 generation fought to preserve democracy. But ultimately, this is a war movie that is really about war and how it can be so devastating, how returning soldiers may find it difficult to explain to those who were not there the psychological traumas they have gone through. There is no need for a John Wayne type in this film (Tom is Everyman! And he is just great in this role, you can feel his moods and fears — and his urgent need to do the job and go home).

This film can in some ways be considered a visual masterpiece, but what it lacks is political insight. But Spielberg knows how to do one thing really well” he knows how to tell a story visually that can reach the masses, and that is what he accomplishes here.

The flaws are minor, but since the film does make a concerted effort for accurate details it should be noted what they are: Tom would have covered his captain’s bars in a war zone and the men wouldn’t have long and loud conversations when walking through a battle area. But the most serious transgression, which gave me pause to think that this is the same old sentimental Spielberg, is when the translator (Davis), who is new to combat, loses his nerve in the field and what ensues are a series of events that seemed to be too contrived to flow with the rest of the movie. This is not because soldiers don’t freeze in combat as he does, but because here it happens so conveniently that the soldier can be spotted redeeming himself for the American audience as he kills the only unhelmeted German soldier on the bridge. Of course, he is the one that Hanks let go for humanitarian reasons (remember in Schindler’s List the Jewish lady in the concentration camp with the red dress as everyone else was shot in black and white!).

This is a great war film but not a masterpiece (I have lowered my opinion of the film after seeing it for a third time). It is filmed with great gusto and is seen through the eyes of what the soldier saw in combat. You can talk to those who were there and they will tell you to a man, that this is the way it happened.