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by Brian Thomas

Rockin' Ryan

A few decades back in time and we find young Steve Speilberg making epic war movies in his back yard. Though the fighting men were all barely into their teens and the grenades were only exploding dirt clods, the subject of World War 2 has never been embraced with more cinematic enthusiasm.

Though primarily known for his one-two punch combo of sense-o'-wonder fantasies and "important" dramas, Steven Spielberg has always held the era of World War II foremost within his attention. At this writing, a half dozen of his feature films have been set during the war. His latest, Saving Private Ryan, is the best of that half dozen - a potent portrait of the nightmares of war that nimbly dances between gut-wrenching human drama and gut-spewing mayhem.

The advertising campaign for Saving Private Ryan touts it as Speilberg's follow-up (after the relative disappointment of Amistad) to his previous Academy Award success Schindler's List. It's painted as another epic tale of inspirational heroism and compassion guaranteed to jerk the closely guarded tears out of the freedom-loving eyes of every Real American. A "making of" special on HBO and articles in magazines like Newsweek drive home the point that this is a heartfelt and painstakingly accurate tribute to the veterans and victims of the Great War. Let no one pause to think that this is the talented mastermind behind the flawed fluffery of The Lost World or the sentimental embarrassment of Hook - this is once again a Speilberg in Oscar-bound mode, blessing us all with another masterpiece of serious intent and conviction. And look - it stars everybody's favorite All-American Mr. Everyman, Tom Hanks. Be sure to bring the entire family to witness the miracle, and by all means invite along friends from your church, synagogue and VFW.

Don't get me wrong. SPR is all that, and the ad campaign will make sure the intended impression is sustained when Oscar nominations are handed out next year. But old time carnival barkers from coast to coast would slap their collective foreheads in disbelief at the opportunity that Madison Avenue chowderheads are missing in their misguided efforts to promote this attraction at the local gigaplexes. The real lowdown sure to fuel the buzz on the street and pack the houses is thus: "Sweet! Ryan totally ROCKS, dude!"

Dig the whole D-Day landing on Omaha Beach scene. It's one the most astounding sequences ever put on film - and perhaps coincidentally one of the biggest gross-outs. Hey man, even the soldiers on screen are barfing their rations in anticipation of the carnage on their way to the big battle. And well they should - as soon as they touch ground, the massacre begins. Hundreds of young men are immediately torn apart by a spay of relentlessly pounding German lead. Many spill out of the boats to drown in bloody brine. Arms and legs are smashed away by enemy fire. Intestines spill out across the sand. A comrade's face is shot through the back of his splintered skull. Sea water turns red as the corpses continue to pile up. With no way to retreat, Captain Hanks and his trusty sidekick Sgt. Tom Sizemore have no alternative but to charge up that impossible hill and somehow kill every German they can before they're killed themselves.


Speilberg experimented successfully in roving and jiggling camera techniques to sell the dino roundup sequence in The Lost World, and the same techniques pay off a thousand fold here. Coupled with an outstanding sound mix that puts you deep within a maze of speeding bullets, the whole sequence is a concerto of shocks and thrills.

After this, the simple plot is introduced. Three Ryan brothers killed in action on the same day. Hanks and his Rat Patrol are sent off to find the fourth brother and take him home. A young recruit is assigned to the unit, ostensibly to act as interpreter, but his real mission is to heighten the bravery of his co-stars through acts of blatant cowardice. Don't fret - there's never too much plot getting in the way of the story. There's plenty of action along the way (Lookee! It's Ted Danson chopping down Nazis with a machine gun!), and even after they find Ryan the bloody action never lets up.

Don't let me mislead you into thinking Saving Private Ryan is nothing more than three hours of extreme violence. Not so - it's only about two and a half hours of grue. Mixed in, there's quite a bit of heated argument and discussion about the relative value of human life - whether the life of Private Ryan is really worth the risk of other lives, and whether Aryan privates are equal to American privates, and so forth. There's also some non-flashback footage, accompanied by way too much sappy John Williams music (kept wisely at bay for the bulk of the picture), pointing out the modern perspective. This does little to undercut the warm glow produced by many, many quality kills.

Even before this picture, Speilberg was infamous for sneaking more pure graphic gore under an R-rating than Herschel Gordon Lewis and Sam Raimi ever produced in unrated features. In all honesty, that's the selling point that could make Saving Private Ryan a runaway hit. It's without a doubt the goriest film of 1998, delivering "the goods" without apology, unable to mask it's guilty pleasures with solemn messages. Though I don't doubt Speilberg's sincerity, he is undeniably one of the most ingeniously manipulative artists of the 20th century.

Cut to the hallway outside an MPAA screening room, as the membership delivers its verdict in an informal meeting with the famed filmmaker. "We're sorry, Mr. Speilberg, but due to the intensity of the material presented in this film, we're forced to assign it an NC-17 rating. It's really much too strong to be enjoyed by general audiences." After a few moments spent watching the face of the visibly shaken and disappointed genius, the members can't help but crack up in waves of laughter. Realizing he's been had, Speilberg joins the jollity. "Oh, you guys! You get me with that gag every time!"


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