"Saving Private Ryan"

Old home movies show the genesis of Steven Spielberg's sincere but deeply conventional wartime drama.

By Andrew O'Hehir
October 18, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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"Saving Private Ryan"
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon
DreamWorks; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of documentary, director's message, more

From the grand distance of two years, "Saving Private Ryan" can perhaps be judged less passionately: It's a superb achievement within a severely limited genre. After all, it's a gung-ho World War II movie, not different in kind or essence from the flag-waving classics that fascinated Steven Spielberg as a child. As historian Stephen E. Ambrose affirms in the fascinating DVD documentary (in which, unfortunately, his first name is consistently misspelled), Spielberg's extraordinary opening scene will stand as the ultimate cinematic record of the D-Day invasion in all its carnage, chaos and almost unbelievable courage. After that first artery-clenching 28 minutes, audiences were probably grateful to settle into a conventional tale of cynicism-turned-bravery, of sacrifice in the cause of freedom.


Say what you will about Spielberg's flaws as a filmmaker (and I have), but the enormous sums he spends wind up on the screen for everyone to see. Janusz Kaminski's Oscar-winning cinematography remains rich and imaginative in this sterling DVD transfer, full of telling detail and captivating shifts of perspective. (Once in a while, we glimpse the fighting from the German point of view, and the enemy is never demonized or caricatured.) Spielberg's fine ensemble cast members are called upon more as athletes than as actors, and the roles they play -- the mild-mannered middle-American officer, the brash Brooklynite, the Jew, the educated coward, the country boy -- are as hoary as those in a medieval passion play.

Someone with more time on his or her hands than I have will have to figure out what America's turn-of-the-century burst of World War II nostalgia, epitomized by "Saving Private Ryan," was all about. Honorable as it was for a younger generation to revisit the genuine heroism of the war against fascism, it strikes me that there was also something socially and culturally retrograde about that moment. For all its death, "Saving Private Ryan" seems to present war as fundamentally noble in a way "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket," made a decade earlier, do not. (Nor does "The Thin Red Line," of course, but that problematic film is unique in many respects.) Spielberg, at any rate, came by his WWII fixation honestly. In the DVD documentary, we see snippets of the home movies his father shot while serving in Burma during the war, along with bits of the teenage "Steve" Spielberg's first action films, starring his friends as Nazi and Allied troops fighting it out in the Arizona desert. They're the work of an enthusiastic and talented kid with a yen for adventure, a love of old-fashioned movies and a sentimental streak a mile wide. Not much has changed.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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