Cinema: Oh, what a Spielberg war!

Saving Private Ryan 15

You probably already know about the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. No doubt you've read about the caved-in skulls, the mangled soldiers screaming for their mothers, the mine-blast victims scooping up their spilled guts. It's a bloody half-hour that has inspired some of the most purple prose in the history of cinema criticism.

You will also have noticed that Steven Spielberg's Second World War drama is being treated as something more important than a mere movie. It has been promoted as a kind of historical document, and judged accordingly. Radio 4 dispatched the distinguished war reporter Charles Wheeler; the Mirror sent in a phalanx of Chelsea pensioners to see it; BBC2 has given over tonight's TV schedule to a celebration of Spielberg the historiographer. And this is why - despite its containing much work that is heart-stoppingly impressive - Saving Private Ryan is a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience.

As Milton was to Puritan England and Eisenstein to Soviet Russia, so Spielberg would like to be to the post-Cold War world. He's the guy who takes our culture's big stories and turns them into three-hour epics. Schindler's List is now the first stop for schoolkids who want to know about the Holocaust. And had it not been such a dreadful film, Amistad might have done a similar service for slavery. The same desire to produce a definitive account of a historical moment informs Saving Private Ryan. It aims to be the war film to end all war films. It bombards its audience with savage hyperrealistic effects. This, the movie insists, is as close to being there as you will ever get.

But there are many reasons why Spielberg's film is probably a less satisfactory experience than a conversation with your grandfather. Firstly, as will be very obvious to British audiences, it gives the impression that the Second World War was a conflict fought between the USA and Germany (Britain's involvement is summed up in one snide remark about Monty's incompetence). Secondly, Spielberg refuses to let his images speak for themselves. He always wants to over-clarify, to make obvious. His regular composer John Williams, like some henchman with a knuckle-duster, is always on hand to beat out each potential subtlety with a bruising rush of violins. Thirdly, Robert Rodat's script is consummately average. In the hands of a lesser director, it could well have gone straight to video. Spielberg wisely chooses to drown much of it out with artillery fire.

But the most unappetising element of his film is Tom Hanks, who plays Captain Miller, the quiet hero who leads the mission of the title. Somehow, Hanks has persuaded the US public that he is a distillation of all their better qualities. Personally, I find it hard to separate his screen performances from the self-aggrandising oversincerity of his public persona. In this film, as always, he is a pasty lump of the worst kind of American sanctimony. His Oscar will already be in the bag.

The film's opening scene, however, remains a staggering achievement - if only because it must set a new record for the casual and gory destruction of extras. Half of American actordom is there, thrashing about in a quagmire of fake offal. It is a remarkable feat of man-management and digital trickery. It is also the sternest test of audience endurance that the multiplex cinema has ever seen, relentless beyond the call of ordinary dramatic requirements. After the first quarter of an hour, you begin to lose your ability to cope with its savagery. When the 30 minutes are up, you feel sick and shaky. But it's only a movie: its devastating assault on the senses has more in common with the gimmickry of 3D or Sensurround than the veracity of genuine experience. Unfortunately, when all the men who remember what the D-Day landings were really like are safely in their graves, Spielberg's version of these events will be as loud and brassy as the day it was made.

See Critics' Choice, page 15, for cinema details.