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Saving Private Ryan

Spielberg revives a dying genre with respect and power.

The greatest thing about Saving Private Ryan is not that its release signifies a shift in popular action genre in Hollywood, although the idea certainly makes fabulous cocktail party conversation. The best thing about this film is that its worth extends far past the eight dollars and two hours you will spend in order to see it. Having expected the same big-budget, tear-jerking Hollywood schlock one has come to expect from the American filmmaking business, I emerged from the theater shocked, and in fact elated, by the film's reverence toward its genre and to the horrific reality of foot-soldiery. Spielberg hadn't left me feeling cynical and holier-than-thou as do so many other mainstream filmmakers. Call me Dawson Leary, but I'm a convert.

The plot presents an interesting moral dilemma: in a guilty homage to the earnest condolence letters sent by Abraham Lincoln to deceased soldiers' families during the Civil War, World War II Army officers make a special public relations case out of returning Private James Ryan home to his mother, as all three of his brothers have died in the war. A small party is sent to search for him behind enemy lines in France; the soldiers question the chain of command, marveling- at the Army's "waste of natural talent" in sending eight men to find one (possibly dead) man. Hence the film's central conflict: Go Bravely Against Better Judgment In Favor of Principle.

Unlike the souped-up historical fiction of Titanic, this picture takes a minimalist approach to storytelling. Yes, it is formulaic; you're not going to get a cryptic, hyper-intellectual experience out of laying cash down to see this film. It is instead a transparent production. It is rife with clarity in every shot. Camera lenses are stripped of their filters to create a soft, gray-green wash; apertures are reduced from 180 to 90 and even 45 to create in each dolly the choppy, haphazard appearance of newsreel footage. Thoughtful close-ups and medium close-ups allow the viewer's eye to rest on particularly compelling images while battle rages in every corner of the screen. The resourceful use of quiet -- of action over silence -- is rivaled only by the layering of muted, sonorous tracks of distant shelling creating a sense of expansive geographic depth from within the tight hiding places in which the soldiers trade quips, fears, and philosophy by candlelight.

The cast may be superb, the cinematography genius, and the story compelling, but in a nod to the WWII genre, Spielberg's characters do often rely upon convention and type. Jeremy Davies (Spanking the Monkey) turns in a beautiful performance as the sensitive intellectual; Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen) is the Brooklyn wisenheimer with a bad attitude; Tom Sizemore, a remarkable actor, is the reliable Sarge, always faithful and forthcoming with advice. These sorts of characters one expects. It is comforting to see them again and again in films.

However, there are other players here who transcend type: Wade, a driven young medic with a manic zeal for helping the wounded, is played by still-boyish Giovanni Ripisi (Phoebe's brother on Friends). The dark circles beneath Wade's eyes and his quiet manner barely conceal his adrenaline screen presence. Newcomer Barry Pepper's hawk-like calm sets his bible quoting, Southern-boy sharpshooter act apart from the rest. Tom Hanks is in his own league as an actor having developed a personal style which blends incredulity with mettle in a way that reveals his character subtly. And Matt Damon is cast perfectly in the role of Private Ryan, though he cannot shine as an actor as he does in Good Will Hunting.

Of the primary supporting cast, only Damon did not undergo a course of basic training with a military expert. Damon notes that upon arriving on the set halfway through filming, he felt like he had walked into some sort of established brotherhood. This dynamic translates well onscreen and thus the crucial meeting between the search party and Ryan is tense. In fact, the whole film is tense and were it not for well-timed breaks in the action, I would have had to remind myself to breathe. The images are so arrestingly effective that I cried six times. This film transports the viewer to a horrible, fascinating place.

Spielberg is still no Bergman, but he has, here, anticipated and addressed the moviegoers' every concern regarding the viewing experience, eliminating the small holes in plot and character which, by the time our sweaters are brushed free of popcorn, too often add up to feelings of emptiness and saeva indignatio. This is a well-made film. The seams are invisible. Finally you can see a mass-marketed moving picture show without feeling suckered into paying for yet another poorly made product. You may feel wiped out from all of the graphic bloodshed, but you won't feel suckered. Rarely do quality and quantity merge in Hollywood, so to see it on screen, as you can imagine, is a delight.

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Saving Private Ryan
rated R
2 hours 50 minutes

Tom Hanks
Tom Sizemore
Edward Burns
Matt Damon
Vin Diesel
Jeremy Davies
Adam Goldberg
Barry Pepper
Giovanni Ribisi

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