Does anyone still believe WWII was the good war, and that cynicism, spin control and U.S. brutality were born in Vietnam? If so, Steven Spielberg's visceral re-creation of the Second World War experience will be a shocker: The film's battle scenes are
anarchic, bloody, frenzied and studded with atrocious acts. Screenwriter Robert Rodat's script (based loosely on an actual incident and heavily indebted to historian Stephen Ambrose), however, sticks to familiar ground. Battle-scarred Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is sent on a special mission to
retrieve one Private Ryan (Matt Damon), who merits heroic efforts because he's the sole survivor of four enlisted brothers, and his safe return is conceived as a home-front morale booster. Miller's hand-picked squadron is a checklist of war-movie types -- hard-nosed sergeant (Tom Sizemore); decent
private (Vin Diesel); Brooklyn wiseass (Edward Burns), introspective medic (Giovanni Ribisi); tough Jew (Adam Goldberg); pious Southern sharpshooter (Barry Pepper); and bookish corporal (Jeremy Davies) with no frontline experience -- whose destinies follow a well-worn path. The exception is the GI
who clings to the hope that war exposes the hidden strength in men, and instead has the worst wrenched out of him in a scene that elicits scattered applause but seems designed to evoke a mixture of pity and contempt. The movie's greatest strength lies in phenomenal performances that reach from the
leads right down to the smallest supporting roles: Hanks' affability is worked under Miller's hardened skin, and Damon gives Ryan a boyish determination as convincing as it is naïve. Spielberg does some of his best work (the pointless present-day framing sequence notwithstanding), but follows in
distinguished footsteps: Among the films that shouldn't be lost in the rush to praise are Samuel Fuller's harrowing BIG RED ONE, whose credo -- "the only glory in war is surviving" -- could be this movie's own.
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