The second the front gates of the landing-ships drop, German machine-gunners set up in a bunker right above the beach open fire, the men scatter whichever way they can, on land, under water, they get shot, they get hit, they fall, they drown. The sound is deafening. Under water - and it's even scarier than the din above - all you hear is the "pffeeeee-ew" of the bullets slowed by the sea, all you see is the tail they leave behind as they slo-mo into the bodies. On the ground, anywhere you look, men are mowed down. Many of those that make it out of the boats die in the first yards of sand. There is nothing graceful about the way they die, and the sea actually turns red.
Absurdity and rage hit you almost harder than the bullets. A man is lying, still alive, his guts spilling on the sand despite his desperate efforts to keep them inside. Another man falls, and his platoon mates are pressing his innards in, trying to stop the blood from pouring while the medic frantically tries to bandage the guy. But a stray bullet hits the wounded man in the head, he dies instantly, the medic tears up the bandage with rage and frustration. Yet another man has his arm torn off by an explosive. Dazed, confused, he stands still, walks away, returns, stares at his severed limb, picks it up as if it were a log and wanders away, aimlessly. The image is desaturated, the camera jerks about violently, newsreel-style - think Robert Cappa with a moving-picture camera. It's real, hallucinatory, relentless - WILL IT EVER STOP!
It does, after nearly thirty minutes. Thirty minutes of Apocalypse right here right now, thirty minutes of the most brilliant film-making one has seen in who knows how long that knock into oblivion (if not downright indict) decades of Hollywoodiana, from John-Wayneries (war is the ultimate test of manhood) to Bruce Willis-actionners (war is a video-game).
How can the rest of the film measure up to such an opening? Until another battle scene toward the end - so different, but just as excruciatingly (and brilliantly) painful - it doesn't. You are back to (more) conventional story-telling. After Omaha Beach is secured, Captain John Miller and a group of his men are sent on a special mission : they are to rescue a Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed. The order comes directly from General Marshall. Is it a public-relations stunt ? Is it the one right, humane thing to do? Doesn't matter. The "platoon" sets forth.
At which point, story-telling at its most metaphoric, parabolic, fable-like and yes, Hollywood "best" (read : most contrived) rears its ugly head. In addition to thuggish, no-bullshit sergeant (the wonderful Tom Sizemore) and the captain (Tom Hanks, now in a league onto his own), the "platoon" comprises one Jew (Adam Goldberg), one Italian (Vin Diesel), one Southerner , complete with Bible-quoting (Barry Pepper), one whiny Brooklyn smart-ass (Edward Burns), one sort of all-American gangly kid (Jeremy Davies), the skinny, timid, nervous translator. No Asian, no Black, no Native-American - mercifully, one might add, for that would have shown the filmmakers turning into pretzels under the pressure of overzealous (and misused) political correctness. Going through the ravaged fields and villages of France, they bitch about the absurdity of risking the lives of eight men to save one's - touching, though, on such themes as decency, loyalty, solidarity, self-sacrifice, death... Each member of the platoon will have his say, his moment, his monologue.
Yet, that "search" patch is full of superb moments, sharp, alert, sensitive : the kind of stuff no filmmaker ever "bothered" to show you. The stillness, at times. Or the moment when a terrified French couple, standing on the exposed second floor of their eviscerated house, hands their little girl to the Americans for protection. The girl cries that she doesn't want to leave her parents, the grunt who shields her risks his own life, yet when the girl is returned to her parents, she unleashes her tearful rage at her father... Emotionally intense but so damn RIGHT...
As is the cast, which the (relative) calm of this segment allows you to pause and consider. The goofy grinny Tom Hanks whom-we-all-love is nowhere to be seen. He's been replaced by a sadder, quieter - and all the stronger - presence. While every nuance of tension, horror, disgust, bafflement is registered by the subtlest movements on the actor's face, what he does with his VOICE to convey all of the above AND true authority in an uncharted mental landscape is uncanny. It helps enormously that the rest of the cast is made of actors unfamiliar to mainstream-moviegoers. None of the typical - tacit but ironclad - Hollywood hierarchy that determines who dies by the second reel (extras, supporting players, early Dana Andrews) and who survives at the end (the stars). Most of the platoon guys are played by actors who come from independent films - Ed Burns is, of course, the director of "The Brothers McMullen" and Jeremy Davies, who must be singled out, played the lead in "Spanking the Monkey".
The platoon finally find Private Ryan (Matt Damon) - who doesn't want to be saved : he was ordered to fight a war, he'll continue fighting. As it happens, in a devastated village nearby, there is a bridge that the men, Ryan included, must hold to avoid its falling in the hands of the Nazis. Get ready for the second battle scene.
It is smaller in size, but as ferocious, as devastating as the first one, for by now, we have come to know each member of the platoon, it's the details that grip you - and the cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), sound (Ronald Judkins), editing (Michael Kahn) and score (a somberly Schonbergian John Williams) are too unique not to be mentioned here. When Jeremy Davies (as close to representing the audience as any character can) freezes at a crucial moment, you can't help but wonder what YOU would have done in the same situation. YOUR gut, YOUR heart, YOUR soul freeze along with his in that moment of suspended eternity. Ignore the mawkish, speechifying scenes that book-end the film (always a problem with the "serious" Spielberg). Scene by scene, bullet by bullet, frame by frame, sprocket after sprocket, "Saving Private Ryan" will hit you like no other film has. Ever.
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