Apocalypse Then

The viscera of war.

Saving Private Ryan
Directed by Steven Spielberg
DreamWorks SKG

How do you portray violence in movies nowadays so that it isn’t a turn-on? Nearly 30 years ago, Sam Peckinpah devised a massacre at the climax of The Wild Bunch that he thought would take the casualness out of killing. He lingered on it, slowed it down, fastened on blood-spurting bodies as they hurtled through the air–and ended up making it lyrical, aestheticizing it, distancing it. Less well-intentioned filmmakers followed in the wake of “Bloody Sam,” turning carnage into spectacle, even into rock ’n’ roll. What Steven Spielberg has accomplished in Saving Private Ryan is to make violence terrible again. Nothing in the movie’s melodramatic narrative can diminish the shocking immediacy of its combat scenes.

The opening battle might be the most visceral ever put on film. After a solemn but predictable modern-day prologue–an old man and his extended family trudge out to a cemetery to view row upon row of white crosses–there’s a shock cut to the boats of Allied soldiers surging toward Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. It’s D-Day, 1944. Trembling hands open a canteen. They belong to a familiar star–Tom Hanks–but everything that follows is alien. The camera is down in the surf, pitching, as young men pray and vomit. They’ve barely beached before the first bullets come–before these smooth-faced, overgrown kids begin to get blown through. We don’t see the enemy machine guns or rifles, but we hear the pops and the ceaseless whine of bullets, and we watch the men as their chests and heads explode. Some drop underwater, but still the bullets come in near silence, producing squalls of blood; above the water, the din resumes with a vengeance.

The images are supersharp, as if viewed through too-strong glasses, yet they streak and pixilate–break into shards–as the camera jerks wildly left, then right. Color has been drained from the frame: The greens of uniforms and browns of earth are muted, the sky rendered a neutral gray. Against this monochromatic palette, the brackish blood leaps out of the screen. That blood is everywhere. A helmet full of seawater turns out to be full of sloshing gore; a soldier with a gushing arm socket picks up his severed limb and staggers aimlessly; a man with his intestines on the outside wails through a last, protracted hemorrhage. A soldier’s helmet stops a bullet with a clank; he removes it in wonder; his brains are then blown out.

For nearly half an hour, the horrors come one upon another, unaccompanied by music and unrelieved by any point of view except that of the soldiers in the middle of the slaughter. There are no objective, “establishing” shots and no possibility for emotional distance. Nauseated, I fixed on Hanks because I knew the star would survive until at least the last reel. But even that reassurance seemed precarious. In Saving Private Ryan, death can come at any instant, from any direction. For the rest of the film’s running time (nearly three hours, total), each action–even a small one, such as the eating of an apple–is thick with potential finality.

This is not the work of the Spielberg we’ve come to know. After Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), he could afford to build any set, throw money at any creative problem. His mise en scène became increasingly synthetic: He seemed to lose touch with the texture of life. Even Schindler’s List (1993) edged into the movie-ish. Deciding to shoot Saving Private Ryan as if it were a war documentary gives Spielberg’s art a new orientation. Or rather, a new disorientation. He shoots battles so that we can’t always see what’s happening, our vantage is frighteningly restricted, and the world of combat is reduced to pure sensation. This isn’t about “bravery” or “heroism” but getting from Point A to Point B without being torn apart by bullets.

Saving Private Ryan, from a script by Robert Rodat, doesn’t remain as feverishly abstract as its imagery, but at its best, early on, it feels undiagramed–unmapped. A squadron of Omaha survivors, led by Capt. Miller (Hanks), is sent behind enemy lines to find one Pvt. Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed on the same day in separate battles. The seven men under Miller’s command are furious with what they see as a PR mission and a misallocation of military resources; they can’t believe they’re risking their lives to rescue one anonymous private. But we in the audience know that the mission is more than PR–that Gen. Marshall (Harve Presnell, sounding like Bob Dole) has ordered it out of a Lincolnesque compassion for all the families ripped apart by war. Freighted with such symbolism, the odyssey cannot help but amount to something.

M iller’s journey into the bowels of the war–through rubbled villages and fields strewn with rotting corpses–attains the surreal intensity that Francis Ford Coppola strove for in Apocalypse Now (1979), except without the self-conscious Golden Bough stabs at myth-making. Spielberg stages an agonizingly prolonged encounter with a German sniper in a mounting drizzle, the life of a wounded, exposed soldier streaming out of his body with the rainwater. The next assault is different, an attack on a concrete Nazi “pillbox” that’s barely glimpsed through the thick smoke, the action viewed through the eyes of the squadron’s skinny, bookish translator (Jeremy Davies). After the shooting subsides, the tenderfoot hurries ahead to discover the group’s medic (Giovanni Ribisi) mortally wounded, being ministered to by squadron mates hysterically pressing the dying man for instructions on how to stop his bleeding. It’s no wonder that, later, the men go through piles of dog tags taken off dead Americans with little more than numb irritation and that when they finally stumble on Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), they can barely contain their hostility.

Soldiers in war movies are usually undercharacterized–it comes with the territory. But these young actors register. Vin Diesel’s loping charisma made me sad to see him blown away so early, and Barry Pepper gives a stock part–the sniper who prays fervently before he kills–a monomaniac concentration. Mellish, Adam Goldberg’s nervy Jew, who can’t keep from taunting captured Germans with his religious identity, is a study in aggression, like Groucho without punch lines. There are stellar turns by Davies, Ribisi, Tom Sizemore as a plodding but good-hearted sergeant, and Edward Burns, whose acting is less mannered when removed from his own movies. Tom Hanks’ efforts to submerge his moody-wise-guy personality dovetails movingly with his character’s struggle to keep his humanity in check. I find Damon’s proletarian integrity deeply suspect but must admit that he holds the camera like a star and that finding Pvt. Ryan is not an anticlimax.

The battles in Saving Private Ryan make most World War II pictures seem like Hollywood kid stuff–even the bleak, “existential” ones like Sam Fuller’s Steel Helmet (1951) and Don Siegel’s Hell Is for Heroes (1962). These sequences carry a post-Vietnam aura of futility, and the scenes between the skirmishes are similarly modern, full of rambling talk and post-Godot waiting around. But the movie’s overall vision is surprisingly old-fashioned. In most Vietnam films, authority is insane. Here, orders from on high bring meaning, a glimpse of a more divine purpose. The mission has the opposite end of the one in Apocalypse Now: not the war’s heart of darkness but its heart of light.

There’s another, more virulent way in which the movie is old-fashioned. In the course of the endless massacre of Americans on Omaha Beach, I wrote in my notebook, “No one who experiences this scene will ever cheer for a war again.” But when the tide of the battle turned and the Germans started getting their heads blown off, I wrote “YES!!!!” And when a pair of Allied soldiers, fresh from witnessing their buddies being blown to bits, shot several pleading Germans rather than take them prisoner, I didn’t applaud the act, but I didn’t feel much like grieving, either.

The Germans are faceless with one exception: a captured pillbox Nazi who babbles and cajoles for his life, sings American anthems, extols Betty Grable’s gams, and screams “Fuck Hitler!” Reiben (Burns) and Mellish want to blow him away, but the translator–who has almost never fired a gun–protests vigorously that such an act would be a war crime and that the German must be taken prisoner or freed. It would be wrong to give away what happens next, but the consequence of the squadron’s action is ham-handedly predictable and, morally speaking, takes the picture down a peg. Too bad.

It goes without saying, however, that Spielberg makes the case that soldiers’ morals explode like land mines amid the terrors of war. This is not, after all, where they live. It’s hard to recall a more chilling stretch in modern movies than the one before the last big battle, when the American soldiers, surrounded by the debris of a devastated town, listen to the echoey, piped-in strains of an Edith Piaf recording–and then hear the first low rumbles of approaching German tanks, each man alone in the shared knowledge that this foreign music will likely be the last they’ll hear.