Jerry Don’t Surf

Saving Private Ryan

a film directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Robert Rodat

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which was released in July and has become one of the summer’s biggest hits, is the story of eight American soldiers who, after surviving the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, are ordered to find a private named Ryan who parachuted in during the invasion and is now somewhere in Normandy. This Ryan is the youngest of four brothers; the other three have died in action. The army wants to find out whether the remaining boy is still alive and, if he is, to bring him home to his mother. The rescue patrol runs into some hairy situations, but they get their man, and although they suffer terrible casualties themselves, they manage to kill quite a few Germans along the way.

There is nothing unconventional about this story. It is possibly the most tried and true dramatic plot known to man: a life is saved. Spielberg himself has used it many times before. It’s the plot of both of his other big historical pictures, Amistad (Africans saved from slavery) and Schindler’s List (Jews saved from the Holocaust), but he’s used it in some of his big science-fiction entertainments, too, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind (persons missing and presumed dead turn up on board a spaceship) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (alien dies and comes back to life, twice). It is a plot guaranteed to melt stone. It’s the little girl pulled safely from the well, the hostages’ release, the last-minute reprieve for the innocent man. It is Christ risen from the tomb. No audience can resist it. You may walk out of the theater rich with indignation at the shamelessness of it all, but you cannot get rid of the lump in your throat.

Yet the consensus is that Saving Private Ryan is not a conventional movie.* It has been received as something like a breakthrough, a new thing in the cinema of combat, so far beyond earlier efforts once praised for their realism, such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, that those movies are scarcely mentioned even as points of contrast. People concede that the story is a little hokey, but they insist that Spielberg has not treated it in a hokey manner. He is said to have given us, as though for the first time, war without sentimentality or patriotic fakery, to have replaced the cartoon violence of special effects extravaganzas with a picture of the true horror and inhumanity of organized violence.

This judgment rests chiefly on two scenes, one near the beginning of the movie and the other close to the end. Saving Private Ryan opens with a shot of the American flag, followed by a brief scene, set in the present day, in which a veteran is shown visiting a military graveyard in Normandy. Then we flash back, with a cut suggesting that we are now inside this man’s thoughts, to D-Day, and a twenty-minute re-enactment of the landing at Omaha Beach. This introduces the story…

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