Spielberg grows up

Finally, the director reins in his own worst instincts.

Steven Spielberg has finally made a genuinely serious movie. His previous attempts—The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, and Amistad—were films on serious themes. But they were profoundly marred by an insistence on their very seriousness. You couldn’t lose yourself in the story because Spielberg kept tapping you on the shoulder, reminding you how very important this all was.

Saving Private Ryan

directed by Steven Spielberg

starring Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Matt Damon

opens Fri at City Centre, Guild 45th, Oaktree, and others

While Saving Private Ryan follows that lead—what could be a more serious topic than war?—it refuses to give in (for the most part, anyway) to Spielbergian bathos. For once, the director concentrates on the damned good story at the center of his film, and lets go of grandiosity. For his trouble, he ends up with a picture within spitting distance of greatness.

All of Spielberg’s “good” movies—which can be defined as those Spielberg films without corresponding action figures—have the potential to be better films than they are (if less popular). Each is blessed with a core story that works—and that is ingeniously, inherently cinema-sized. In Schindler’s List, it’s Schindler’s imperfections that tell the story. In Amistad, it’s the marvelous inversion the film effects when the slaves stop being “other” and become actual characters. And in The Color Purple, one can’t help but feel the real story unfold when Celie goes to Shug’s room. The problem in all cases is one of amplification. Once Spielberg has the bit in his teeth, he can’t resist telling his audiences, in various cinematic ways, how important his film is. As every remedial writing student learns, you can’t tell readers what’s important. You must show them.

Despite the wide sweep of its setting, Saving Private Ryan hews closer to its central story than any Spielberg film has ever done. There’s a delicate grain of a plot here, and the film takes the time and care to examine all its ramifications. At the D-Day storming of Omaha beach, we follow Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his company as they shove off from the boats and lunge onto the beach among hundreds of other men. As they wade and swim to shore, we see bullets hiss through the water. Blood blooms in the gray waves. On land, the carnage becomes more explicit. It’s a 30-minute primer on the horrors of war. We don’t just see men get hit; what’s far worse is that we see them after they’re hit, with their guts spilling out—or, worse still, with a field doctor performing crude surgery.

Miller and his men slowly emerge from the sea of faces—we learn this is our company to follow. The film cuts back to a stateside war office. As rows of female secretaries tap out telegrams “regretfully informing” mothers of their sons’ deaths, a horrified typist realizes she has typed out three different letters to the same woman—Mrs. Ryan has lost three sons to the war. A meeting with the highest brass unearths the information that there is one brother left. It’s agreed that he must be restored, intact, to his mother as soon as possible. The problem is, he could be almost anywhere in Normandy. A team of men is dispatched to find him.

You know who that turns out to be. Miller and his men head into the countryside, none of them too happy with the notion of eight men risking their lives to save just one other man. The rest of the film deeply ponders this problem. Are Ryan’s mother’s feelings worth the lives that are lost as the men travel across the war-torn countryside? Holed up in a church one night, Miller commiserates with his sergeant (the remarkable Tom Sizemore) over the apparent futility of the mission. Miller philosophizes, “Every time you kill one of your men, you tell yourself you just saved the lives of two, three, ten, a hundred others…. It lets you always choose the mission over the man.” Sarge responds with what both men are thinking: “Except this time the mission is a man.” In a rare moment of feeling, the cool Miller tosses back, “Ryan better be worth it. He better go home and cure some disease or invent a new longer-lasting lightbulb.”

Miller is played with a great reservoir of still-standing, untapped emotion by Tom Hanks. I was leery of the notion of Hanks—who displayed his own capacity for bathos in Philadelphia—in a Spielberg film’s central role. I anticipated a drip-fest. But it’s Hanks’ performance that stays the course of Saving Private Ryan. He plays Miller so quietly that it’s almost as if he forced Spielberg to understand that the true story here is about ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. That ordinariness is made resonant by the crack cast of troop members, including Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen), Giovanni Ribisi (subUrbia), Adam Goldberg (best remembered as Chandler’s psycho roommate on Friends), and finally Matt Damon as Ryan himself—all the actors make big impressions in minimal screen time.

There’s no John Williams music on the battlefields, there’s no overwrought symbolism, there are no sweeping statements of heroism. This is not to say that Spielberg gives up spectacle—for how could you say that of a film that effectively recreates D-Day, that gives us the finest battlefield footage in recent memory? It seems instead that Spielberg has at last refined his instinct for the grand gesture. He’s thankfully disengaged grandiosity from his story-telling and focused instead on his incomparable facility with spectacle.

But then, just as you realize that Spielberg has reined in his worst tendencies, he has to deface the thing with pointless, maudlin scenes of one of the soldiers returning to Normandy with his family. The old man crouches in front of the rows of white crosses, with too-easy tears crowding his eyes. It’s a hokum-laden moment that too painfully recalls that old dame flinging her diamond off the back of the boat at the end of Titanic.