Hero Worship: Saving Private Ryan Is a Masterpiece

Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece. It cements Steven Spielberg’s reputation as one of the seminal filmmakers of the era. It tells a gallant story of honor and duty and courage under fire. It shows you things about war that have never been seen on a motion picture screen. It makes you proud to be an American without a lot of phony, sentimental, patriotic flag-waving. And it revives my faith in the potential greatness of movies. And now, having said enough to raise eyebrows, let the controversy begin.

Some people will not want to see this powerful and electrifying film because of the violence. (These are the same people who liked Pulp Fiction .) Well, I cannot lie. Saving Private Ryan is violent. War is violent. But one of the many strengths of this phenomenal film that separates it from the usual “Bang, bang, you’re dead!” stuff is the way it not only examines the nature of violence, but redefines the whole concept. You watch the most inhuman aggressions and understand why they were necessary for self-defense. Mr. Spielberg goes beyond the war movie genre; he brings you the war itself.

Saving Private Ryan wastes no time on exposition. It drops you into one of the most violent clashes in world history from the very start. It is June 6, 1944, the day known in infamy as D-Day, when the Allies landed on the beach at Normandy to face the German tanks that threatened the future of the civilized world. More than 4,000 Americans died in the battle that followed, and Mr. Spielberg captures the noise and confusion, the tears and terror of the boys who died like heroes before their time, in one of the most harrowing combat sequences ever filmed. You are plunged head-first into the eye of slaughter, where survival was a miracle. You are the Germans, and you are the wounded and vomiting G.I.’s, too, as the beaches fill with bodies and blood and the injured are blown right out of the arms of the Red Cross medics before they can be dragged to safety. This devastating sequence lasts 30 minutes, and it’s the most overwhelming and agonizing half-hour I have ever spent in a theater. There’s no attempt to alter the sound in order to make individual lines of dialogue easier to hear. To a man, the actors are hoarse from the cacophony that engulfs them, and the viewer feels as trapped and disoriented as the soldiers. The Normandy invasion was well documented in the epic The Longest Day , but Mr. Spielberg’s canvas is on an even more massive scale, with a virtuoso explosion of annihilating horror that hurls the audience into the center of the action with a centripetal force that is indescribable.

The story that follows is about eight brave but battered soldiers, led by Tom Hanks, who are ordered to rescue a private (Matt Damon) missing in action behind enemy lines. Nobody wants the assignment, but the chain of command descends all the way down from Gen. George Marshall, who is willing to risk the lives of eight men to save one boy in order to ease the suffering of a bereaved family in Iowa after their other three sons have died in action. In a galvanizing performance, Mr. Hanks must justify the risk to his men, keep them from deserting, and find decency and responsibility in the hell of war. In the brilliant screenplay by Robert Rodat, you get to know every man like a member of your own family, and in the course of almost three hours, Mr. Spielberg proves that nothing in war is black and white. Americans are good and bad, cowardly and noble. Some are capable of committing the same atrocities against surrendered Germans they’re fighting to prevent. Above all, they are human.

The acting ensemble is first-rate. Tom Sizemore is especially fine as the tough veteran sergeant who plays by the rule book, and Edward Burns, as the tough rebel from Brooklyn who has no mercy for the enemy, breaks out of his usual dull monotone to etch a portrait of cynicism and rage under stress that is surprisingly visceral. Loyalties and values change when you’re emotionally distraught, and the cast does a convincing job of showing inner conflict. In the final analysis, the values Mr. Spielberg explores in these men are the ethics of mankind.

You go away from some movies saying, “I know how they did that.” In Saving Private Ryan , the battle scenes are so graphic you can’t believe what you’re seeing. You are never aware of the camera’s presence. Nothing looks rehearsed or staged. You are simply knocked out of your seat. Far from a conventional gung-ho war movie full of macho heroics, it still makes you feel the tiny moments of valor that came unexpectedly to the men who fought in World War II, without losing track of its human narrative. Some people will object to the scratch patrol of eight guys who sometimes seem to wipe out half the German Army with an endless supply of artillery, but the film is so beautifully paced by Mr. Spielberg and frenetically edited (by Michael Kahn) that you never have time to fret about the occasional plot contrivance. For pure brute force, it outranks Battleground , Battle of the Bulge , Bataan and even The Longest Day as great war movies go.

For younger audiences who’ve never heard of Omaha Beach or Bastogne or even Adolf Hitler, this movie is a valuable history lesson. For more mature audiences, it’s a renewal of understanding for the last war that was really worth fighting. I said it before and I’ll say it again. Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece. And why not? Mr. Spielberg has made one of the greatest children’s movies of all time. He made one of the greatest horror movies of all time. He made the greatest Holocaust movie of all time. After E.T. , Jaws and Schindler’s List , it’s only logical that he should now make one of the greatest war movies of all time. And that’s exactly what he did.

Sedgwick Arrives.

Where’s Shakespeare?

Despite the smell of incense and the sitar music, Nicholas Hytner’s attempt to move Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the Orient in the controversial summer production at Lincoln Center often seems more like Jacques Offenbach than Ravi Shankar. It’s a lavish spectacle for the eye, if not always for the ear. Designer Bob Crowley’s Illyria is built on canals that look more like Venice than Kashmir. Persian carpets with peacocks are separated by boardwalks of Indian mosaics, and into the sapphire-blue swimming pool buffed and burnished actors from the Reebok Gym thrash around, wearing as little as the law allows. When Paul Rudd’s Orsino says the famous line “If music be the food of love, play on!” he’s smoking an opium pipe in a horizontal stupor. When Helen Hunt’s Viola enters, she emerges from a shipwreck, wading through pools of gossamer mist. Yes, there’s razzle all over the place, new ideas in motion and plenty of dazzle to divert the attention, but where is William Shakespeare?

I welcome any revisionist version of Twelfth Night , including Your Own Thing , the rock musical that even included a scene between Humphrey Bogart, Queen Elizabeth, Michelangelo’s God from the Sistine Chapel and John Wayne. But setting this most romantic of comedies in a disco would somehow seem less bizarre than some of the antics in this odd production. The tangled loves of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian, Count Orsino, Olivia, and the assorted servants and court jesters who confuse them further, are still a dizzy delight, ripe for a romp, be the setting Marrakech or Maine. But it’s a strange assortment of miscast bedfellows who do the romping here.

The major surprise is Kyra Sedgwick, a movie star with the beauty, timing and body language to make Olivia the giddy goddess dreams are made of. Helen Hunt, with her boyish ponytail and no-nonsense delivery, is a fetching gender-bender who often reduces the archaic meter to contemporary readings that will please people who hate Shakespeare, but she doesn’t have the vocal shadings or the stage training to make Viola memorable. With earrings dangling and long curls cascading down his back like a horse’s mane, Paul Rudd looks like a rock guitarist on bad drugs. Light-years removed from the charming gay schoolteacher he played in Mr. Hytner’s endearing film The Object of My Affection , he still lacks the manly stature to make Orsino the center of attention. Brian Murray and Max Wright play the fools as a drunken Laurel and Hardy, eating Chinese takeout with chopsticks, while their cohort in lowbrow comedy, Skipp Sudduth, in knickers and beanie, is dressed like Warren Beatty in Bulworth . Always a marvel, Philip Bosco is a riotous Malvolio, making the transition from stern financial wizard to witless moron with a shriveled attitude and wrinkled brow that reminded me of the Smirnoff vodka man with constipation. Some members of the huge cast are still searching for the sub-layers of their roles, and others, like Rick Stearn as the handsome Sebastian, are scarcely on speaking terms with the Bard at all.

In the impressive sumptuousness of the production design, there is much to admire, but when you spend more time counting and recounting the number of candles raised and lowered from the ceiling on a starry Twelfth Night (I counted 60), there is something wrong with the night itself.

Hero Worship: Saving Private Ryan Is a Masterpiece