After the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, you have to wonder where Steven Spielberg could go to try to sustain or augment that kind of visual and emotional clobbering. The old newsreels or movies like The Longest Day, in black and white, belie the brutal shattering of flesh; in calibrated color, we’re chilled as death washes over the victims in waves of blood. Our feelings—watching a soldier trying to find his blown-off arm, for example—can’t be fully measured. All that can be done following such a powerhouse opening is to try to save lives. (Or a moviemaker to one-up the impact, achieved much more emotionally during the Okinawa scenes in Hacksaw Ridge.) Stumped, I don’t really know if the rest of Ryan is all that worthy, dissolving into filler—scenes put in just to keep the show on the road. There’s a jarring bit with an American Jew taunting captured German soldiers. Had Spielberg not already made a Holocaust drama, this inclusion might be acceptable, but it’s gratuitous, a payback for that hateful little girl taunting Jews in the director’s magnum opus, and it implies this soldier knew the horrors not yet fully discovered. We’re spared the insults of The Fighting Sullivans but we’re not spared misplaced anger: the American pansy soldier who speaks German riles us up by his inaction; we keep shouting, “Get up those stairs, you asshole!” (Okay, I admit to screaming “You fucking asshole!” in spite of trepidations regarding the excessive use of the obscenity.) He’ll find courage to deliver a just punishment, yet with Spielberg’s direction waffling and the editing’s timing way off, most of us wouldn’t have objected to the milksop’s demise. Some effective sporadic moments: the super tense standoff caused by a GI leaning against a girder which collapses a wall exposing armed German soldiers (with Ted Danson coming to the rescue); the climatic battle (in a too superbly constructed set) concluding with the major star finding peace in the knowledge that the fierce fighting wasn’t in vain; Ryan’s laughing memory of one of his brothers. Saving Private Ryan is an anti-war movie as a belated thanks to the sacrifices of soldiers who fought “the good war.” (Or, as Ken Burns would wish to correct, “the necessary war.”) That makes it indisputably honorable. What’s regrettable is that its parts don’t add up to make an indisputably good movie.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001 RALPH BENNER (Revised 7/2019) All Rights Reserved.