From Film.com, first published in 1998.
Saving Private Ryan has “masterpiece” written all over it: it sprawls to nearly three hours in length, it is properly measured and somber, it takes on a mighty subject. This is Steven Spielberg in Schindler mode. Private Ryan cannot merely be another war movie, or indeed just another movie. Thus the film begins with a half-hour sequence, the landings at Normandy on D-Day, that aspires to be the ultimate word in the depiction of battle on film.
Probably it is. Let’s be clear about something: despite the fact that he occasionally makes dumb movies such as Hook and The Lost World, Steven Spielberg is a master, and the opening of Saving Private Ryan is masterly. In the landing craft approaching the beach, as G.I.s puke on their own boots out of seasickness and fear, Spielberg takes a breath before the chaos to introduce his central character, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). The camera finds Miller’s uncontrollably shaking hand, which reaches for a canteen and a drink of water—not for the soldier’s thirst, we suspect, but simply to give his shaking hand something to do. Miller’s face is hidden from view by his helmet, but the canteen leads us to his stubbled visage, with Tom Hanks looking very much like a dogface from a Bill Mauldin WWII cartoon. Throughout the film, Spielberg will lock us into Miller’s perspective for a moment of quiet and clarity, a little oasis of calm that throws the violence into even more dramatic relief.
Sometimes being a good director is all about taking a moment. This is one of them, and then the battle is joined, a jiggly, ragged sequence of random brutality and explicit gore. The very texture of the movie itself has the heightened look of a nightmare: the images are washed-out but hyper-real, and motion is slightly jerky, as though every moment stops in time for a micro-second before passing on to the next moment—any one of which could be the moment of death. Limbs are blown off in mid-shot; guts splay out of uniforms and onto the sandy beach; soldiers in mid-sentence are startled by bullet holes blossoming on their foreheads. Blood sticks to the lens of the camera. The director Samuel Fuller, an ex-infantryman who made his own version of D-Day in The Big Red One, used to say that the only way to realistically depict war in a movie would be to have someone firing bullets at the audience from behind the screen. Saving Private Ryan comes as close as anyone ever will to approximating that.
The D-Day sequence actually has nothing to do with the story of Saving Private Ryan. Like a lot of the concentration camp sequences in Schindler’s List, it exists outside the narrative, because of Spielberg’s desire to create a document rather than a motion picture. The plot kicks in when Miller and what’s left of his small platoon receive orders to retrieve a private Ryan (Matt Damon) from somewhere on the forward line in France. Ryan’s three brothers have all died in combat in the last week, and General George Marshall (Harve Presnell) wants to pull the private back to the states, to spare Mrs. Ryan the heartbreak of having all four of her boys killed in action. Then Private Ryan becomes a platoon movie, straight from the tradition of Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, Anthony Mann’s Men in War, and Oliver Stone’s Platoon, to name a sterling trio of the countless examples of the form. The men conform to the usual melting-pot collection of types: loyal meat-and-potatoes sergeant (Tom Sizemore), loudmouth Brooklyn-Irish cynic (Edward Burns), combat virgin (Jeremy Davies, from Spanking the Monkey), wisecracking Jew (Adam Goldberg), capable medic (Giovanni Ribisi), big-hearted Italian (Vin Diesel), bible-quoting sharpshooter (Barry Pepper). Hanks gives a truthful, well-judged performance—when when he and the Sarge are considering the roster of men for the mission, Hanks flickers with irritation, not sentimental regret, when the Sarge reminds him that so-and-so is dead and can’t join the group. Hanks doesn’t fit the conception of the role, at least in the way the other guys describe the captain; they say he’s silent, gruff, a battle-hardened veteran who shuts the other men out of his world. That doesn’t sound like Tom Hanks, that sounds like Robert Mitchum. But Spielberg has always favored the ordinary-guy hero, and Hanks eventually makes the part his own.
As a platoon movie, Saving Private Ryan is utterly engrossing, with some sharply written conversation and brilliantly executed scenes of danger and violence. In that, it is no better or worse than the trio of films named above. Spielberg is also reaching for a grander scale, and here he has mixed results. As an attempt to make the war movie more realistic and less Hollywood-ized, Private Ryan is often shockingly effective. There are moments in this film where you think, What is about to happen can’t happen in a Hollywood movie, let alone a Steven Spielberg movie—and then, unbelievably, it happens. The cruelty of the slaughter on Omaha Beach feels like an atonement on Spielberg’s part—an atonement for making (as a director) and liking (as a spectator) the sanitized war movies of the past.
The story, and presumably its theme, hinge on the cosmic absurdity of sending (and likely sacrificing) eight men in order to save one man, a grunt who has no special talent or value. Robert Rodat’s original screenplay, which has apparently been worked over by Spielberg and other writers, still carries a bit of the absurd, but not much; there’s something not-quite-thought-out about this movie. The possibility that the mission may be a colossal public relations operation is downplayed considerably when General Marshall reads a Civil War letter of consolation from Abraham Lincoln, tears brimming in his eyes.
So is the mission absurd or not? To give Spielberg the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the film’s theme is confused because war itself has no theme—at ground level, there is no meaning, just a mission. At that ground level, Saving Private Ryan is the masterpiece it wants to be. When it aims higher, it is merely a magnificent piece of movie-making.