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by Jim Wunderle

"Saving Private Ryan"

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Matt Damon

Rated: R

I've always respected Steven Spielberg's technical abilities more than I've appreciated his aesthetics. A case in point would be "Jurassic Park."

Sure, those dinosaurs looked real, and bless Spielberg for having the money and the Hollywood clout to stretch the envelope of technology that makes special effects like these a reality. But the story? I couldn't have cared less.

My biggest emotional involvement in the film was hoping someone, or some thing, would devour, or at least maim, Jeff Goldblum, and pronto. Even in his better films "E.T.," Jaws" Spielberg tended to cut a broad path. I've always felt he thinks his audience is rather ... dense.

When he tackled a serious piece, Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Color Purple," I never really shook the nagging feeling that I was watching a Steven Spielberg-manipulated Hollywood product.

All of this began to change a few years ago with "Schindler's List." That film, while maintaining Spielberg's state-of-the-art production values, was completely effective in its storytelling. I'll never forget the silence of the audience as the final credits rolled and the theater lights brightened. With "Schindler's List," Spielberg had finally "matured."

Most recently, Spielberg tackled another serious social study with "Amistad," the true story of a slave ship revolt that shook the very foundations of the American Constitution.

With his latest offering, "Saving Private Ryan," the director returns to the more recent past and gives us a brutal account of the horrors of modern warfare.

Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" showed us the grim, emotional madness that permeates a war. "Saving Private Ryan" gives an up-close look at the physical, as well as emotional, devastation caused by bullets, bombs, mortars and machine guns.

Considering the fact that books such as Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun" were banned in this country during World War II, one wonders what consequences Spielberg would suffer if we were involved in a major global conflict today.

The truth be told, "Saving Private Ryan" is the most blatantly anti-war film to come out of Hollywood since Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." I'm not sure if everyone will see it this way, considering that a few people in the audience actually laughed when German soldiers were getting sawed in half with machine gun fire. Jingoism is still alive and well, I suppose.

After the film's brief opening sequence, we're treated to 25 agonizing minutes of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The camera work (Spielberg actually operated one of the hand-held cameras himself) is dizzying, and never before have we seen bullets penetrate and bombs devastate with such brutal honesty.

After D-Day, the story settles in to the one you've no doubt heard about. There's a soldier, somewhere in German-occupied France, who is to be shipped home.

Three of his brothers have been killed in action, and the powers that be want to ensure that the last surviving son of the Ryan family continues to survive.

The circumstances are based on the true story of the Sullivans, five brothers who were killed aboard a battleship in World War II. Tom Hanks, as Capt. John Miller, leads a squad of eight soldiers on the mission to find, and return to safety, Pvt. James Ryan.

Although the characters in the squad are somewhat stereotypical, and their sentiments are as well, it's not really a dramatic flaw. By now every type of soldier that fought in World War II has been portrayed so many times on-screen that any characterization is going to seem like a stereotype.

The last act of the film finds the squad, and Pvt. Ryan, joining together for a more important mission than the one they started out to do. There are no happy endings here, and the first and last 30 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" are likely to tax you emotionally, but it's a movie you should not miss.

The past few years have seen an ever-increasing number of films featuring endless explosions, bullets and mayhem. Finally, here's a film that makes emotional use of such chaos to add to its story rather than try to cover up for the lack of one.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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