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by: Michael Dequina

"War is hell." No one questions the veracity this statement--over time, it has become less a saying than a truism--but rarely does anyone ever give serious thought to what exactly it means. The opening 25-minute sequence of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan should change all that. Depicting the invasion of France on D-day, June 6, 1944, as seen through the eyes of Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), this section has a startling visceral intensity that is cheapened by text descriptions. To merely describe the brutal, graphic violence, such as the severed limbs, eviscerations, and the free-flowing and -gushing blood, is to discount its sensory and emotional power; to describe it simply on those latter terms is to diminish the bravery and honesty Spielberg exhibits in not shying away from the raw carnage. This bravura opening set piece is cinema in the purest sense--the melding of audio, visuals, and all other individual aspects of filmmaking into a greater whole: an experience whose effects are not easily shaken, its memory not easily forgotten. After the well-intentioned but stately-to-a-chill Amistad, this explosive opening announces that Spielberg has rebounded in a big way with this World War II drama, a stunning piece of work that aims and hits the audience square in the gut.

The "Private Ryan" that must be "saved" is one James Francis Ryan, the only survivor of four brothers in active duty in the war effort; as some type of humanitarian mission, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) dispatches a squad led by Capt. Miller to find Pvt. Ryan and send him home as comfort to his grieving mother. The mission, of course, is not without its complications, not the least of which is the disinterest of Miller and his squad, who are not terribly keen (to say the least) on risking their lives for that of one man--a man they do not even know.

Not surprisingly, the lives of some Capt. Miller's men are sacrificed before they finally locate Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), but their loss makes only a moderate impact. Private Ryan's main weakness is the rather one-dimensional crew with whom writer Robert Rodat surrounds Miller: Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Pvt. Reiben (Edward Burns), Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), Pvt. Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Pvt. Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Pvt. Jackson (Barry Pepper), and Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). Only the wimpy kid Upham comes off as close to a fully-realized character, but most of personality he exhibits can be attributed to Davies's vivid, anguished performance. The other actors do well, but their roles are more shallowly written and developed, half boiling down to single characteristics: hothead (Reiben), Jew (Mellish), Bible-quoter (Jackson); the remaining are nondescript. Maybe it was a conscious decision by Rodat and Spielberg to objectify the squad much like how most who serve in military combat are seen as walking statistics, but it makes the risk of their lives a gambit curiously low in emotional involvement.

Compensating for the faceless squad members is the squad leader, Capt. Miller, Private Ryan's anchor in every way, ably leading his men and serving as a strong, sympathetic emotional center amid the chaos. Brought to life in a well-modulated turn by Hanks, Miller is a consummate professional and leader, but he is not immune to the psychological ravages of war, which have now manifested themselves in the physical form of hand tremors. There are a couple of haunting wordless sequences where Miller blankly watches the mayhem surrounding him like a lost child, bringing to light a subconscious reason for his carrying out the "rescue" of Pvt. Ryan. It's not so much to follow orders and win a ticket home, as he says, but rather to graft a purpose onto the senseless human toll, to put into tangible human form the nebulous reasons behind the fighting--and his role in all of it.

By the film's end, Saving Private Ryan reveals itsel


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