Maybe Spielberg should only make World War II movies. There may be hope for DreamWorks yet. The only war film I’ve seen as near as violent than this one is the Russian WWII film, “Come and See” (1985). In that film, the main character is a teenage boy drafted into the partisans to fight the Germans. Over the course of 2 1/2 hours, everyone he knows ends up dead and he loses his mind.
That boy’s counterpart in “…Ryan” is Jeremy Davies (“Spanking the Monkey”). As Corporal Upham, he is drafted into a squad let by Captain Tom Miller (Tom Hanks). After a nearly half-hour sequence set during D-Day which nearly earned the film an NC-17 rating, Miller and survivors of his squad are sent on a new mission. When seven brothers died together aboard a submarine, the Army has no intention or repeating such a public relations disaster. Upon the discovery three of the four Ryan brothers died during or around D-Day, Gen. Marshall (Harve Presnell) sends in Capt. Miller and survivors of his squad to retrieve the surviving brother, played by Matt Damon, who had parachuted behind enemy lines, and bring him home.
Now this may sound like a typical plot for a war film; I could even picture Gary Cooper in Tom Hanks’ part. The members of Miller’s squadron each represent some cultural archetype found in traditional war movies. The execution makes Oliver Stone movies look like “Hogan’s Heroes”. There is no glib comic relief. The first 24 minutes, the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day, is probably the most nihilistic depiction of the war ever made. Soldiers are mowed down before they can even leave the boat. The whole sequence is shot newsreel style with hand-held cameras from the point of view of the American soldiers losing their bearings in a total slaughterhouse. The worst atrocities seem to occur at the edge of your vision. The Allied forces took the beach, but only by drowning the Germans in a sea of bodies.
After the initial invasion, Hanks’ Capt. Miller receives his orders for Ryan. What follows is an exploration for purpose and hope on a jagged descent into hell. Both are necessary to live. The squad knows they may have to watch their closest friends die for some public relations mission to save a private they don’t even know. Operating on the level of basic survival, none of the rules of “home” apply and the mission appears as a cruel joke. They’re a little resentful.
Spielberg never goes for the easy answers. He, the cast, and screenwriter Richard Rodat have produced the best and most complex war movie ever made. Nobility is an ill-affordable luxury. The average German soldier is portrayed much like his American counterpart, just more desperate. One scene of the capture of a lone German annihilates every Oliver Stone depiction of war. It reveals what was lost to those who made it through, forever damaged. Spielberg can never direct “Indiana Jones”-style cartoon Nazis again.
I never imagined last year Woody Allen would make my favorite movie of the year, and I never dreamed Spielberg would make my favorite this year. He has advanced unbelievably. This outshines “Schindler’s List” in nearly every way: Direction, script, acting, cinematography, and art design. He has made a dark, personal epic. Neither wholly condemning war, nor spouting patriotism, Spielberg shows us the price we pay.