Matthew Lickona 2:02 p.m., Sept. 23
Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg's blood-and-guts war movie is at its best when it is most conventional and at its worst when trying for more (Spielberg in a nutshell), and it is very often very conventional. Whether or not the filmmaker has achieved his flag-waving, trumpet-blowing goal of honoring the survivors and the fallen at Omaha Beach, he has at least honored a Hollywood genre that had dwindled down close to extinction, and had evolved (whenever a straggler would wander along) almost exclusively into the antiwar movie. In his striving for "more," he has certainly supplied plenty of ammunition (so to speak) to the pacifist, but he does not venture so far as to attempt to muddy the reputation of the Last Good War. The essence of this inexcusably long movie (simplest way of attaining "more") is a clear-cut and small-scale mission, albeit an implausible and impractical one: to locate and safeguard a lone paratrooper who is the last surviving of four brothers in the Normandy Invasion. Forget the why of it, though. What matters, to the overriding cause, anyway, of resuscitating the conventional Hollywood war movie, is the stereotypically diverse team of soldiers and their self-revelations around the campfire and on the march. And what matters even more, on the strictly visual level, are the tactical details of the operation, the obstacles encountered and overcome along the way, the topography of the battlefields as well as of the peaceful fields in between, the plainly laid-out plans of engagement and the unpredictable deviations from them. All of this is rooted firmly in the cinematic lore of the Second World War, and treated here respectfully and knowledgeably and competently. But Spielberg, on a one-man mission to push our faces deeper than ever before into the meat grinder of war, wants "more." He wants, in the schizophrenic scenes of carnage, to be all things to all people, shuttling back and forth between (or spanning simultaneously) a newsreel realism and an arty lyricism. Even without the irreconcilable clash between these, there would be something a little unseemly about Spielberg and his crew mimicking the handicaps and hiccups in the work of the front-line documentarists of WWII -- the hand-held jerkiness and jitteriness -- as if these authentic cinematic heroes had been developing a deliberate "style" rather than doing the solidest and most professional job they could, under enemy fire, with their lives on the line. Spielberg, working here under no such duress, has a very different kind of nerve. Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Matt Damon. 1998.