Four Stars For `Private Ryan' -- Spielberg's Violent, Powerful Film Expertly Explores The Horrors Of War

Movie review XXXX "Saving Private Ryan," with Tom Hanks, Jeremy Davies, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon. Directed by Steven Spielberg, from a script by Robert Rodat. 169 minutes. Several theaters. "R" - Restricted because of intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language.

Steven Spielberg's magnificent new film, "Saving Private Ryan," redefines the World War II movie.

Despite nearly six decades of filmmakers trying to come to grips with the subject, it feels like the first truly honest attempt to deal with the horrors of combat - and the terrible responsibility shared by all survivors.

The picture is already famous for its terrifying opening sequence: a brutal account of the slaughter of American soldiers by German machine guns at the disastrous Omaha Beach landing during D-Day. The men shake, vomit, lose limbs, watch their best friends bleed to death and much, much worse.

The chaos is complete, yet all over the beach the survivors are trying to make sense of what they're experiencing. "What do we do now, sir?" asks one. "Who's in command here?" asks another. Gradually they find a way of fighting back, and they're not above making the enemy suffer.

"Don't shoot, let 'em burn," says one soldier after the Germans are routed with a flame thrower. Surrendering Germans are mocked and casually shot; the "rules" of war are abandoned. Back on the beach, human corpses share the cold, red waves with hundreds of dead fish.

The sequence is a masterpiece of cinematography, editing, stunt choreography, sound effects and special effects, and so is the final confrontation between D-Day survivors and German tanks in a bombed-out French village. Nothing like this has been seen since the shattering opening and closing episodes of Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" nearly 30 years ago; "Saving Private Ryan" will be studied by film students for years.

Yet Spielberg doesn't just want to shock us with the undiscriminating violence of these events. As the film moves past Omaha Beach and into the French countryside, as eight soldiers are given the absurd mission of risking their lives to save a paratrooper trapped behind enemy lines, we're confronted repeatedly with questions about the value of a single life in wartime.

"We have crossed over some strange border here," says Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks, perfectly cast), quietly recognizing the surreal nature of the task his squad has been assigned. They've been ordered to rescue Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), the sole remaining son of a family that has lost three young men in battle.

Although we see him crying and shaking at times, Miller is an enigma: a thoughtful man who can appreciate Ralph Waldo Emerson's belief that "war educates the senses" while ruefully counting up the number of men who have died under his command - and trying to make sense of the math. Given several opportunities to open up about his past, he turns instead to the task at hand.

He's accompanied on his mission by an experienced comrade (Tom Sizemore), a Jewish soldier who angrily provokes German prisoners (Adam Goldberg), a talented sniper (Barry Pepper), a soulful medic (Giovanni Ribisi), a resentful New Yorker (Edward Burns), an easygoing Italian-American (Vin Diesel) and a bookish, frightened translator with no battle experience (Jeremy Davies in a riveting performance that dominates the film's final set piece).

The first Pvt. Ryan they meet is the wrong one; the mistake provides the most darkly comic moment in the movie. When they find the right one, the camera passes over Damon's famous face as if he were just another soldier. Which Ryan insists he is.

The prologue and epilogue of "Saving Private Ryan" take place decades after these events, at a D-Day cemetery dominated by rows of crosses.

These scenes, like the ones in which Gen. Marshall (Harve Presnell) singles out Ryan for rescue, may strike some as maudlin, and occasionally John Williams' score pushes too hard. But these are tiny objections to a film that is otherwise so brilliantly realized.