Film: The Big Picture: Killing time killing Nazis

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN(15) DIRECTOR: STEVEN SPIELBERG 170 MINS STARRING TOM HANKS AND TOM SIZEMORE

Saving Private Ryan tells the story of an eight-man mission to locate and rescue a single soldier out of the thousands scattered behind enemy lines in the Second World War, and it has the notable distinction of featuring a career-best performance from the actor Tom Hanks, though it is unlikely that the film will be defined by this in the minds of those who see it. What will be branded on the memory are a pair of visceral, devastating 25-minute battle sequences by which the movie is bookended. Or rather, almost bookended.

What actually open and close the film are modern-day scenes - an elderly war veteran trooping to a cemetery with two successive generations of family in tow, his children pious, his grandchildren respectfully furrowing their brows. It's less a case of the film introducing itself, than Spielberg announcing his ideal audience profile.

This kind of contextualising is nothing more than an inexperienced screenwriter's way of justifying the story which is about to be told. The device didn't work when Ken Loach employed it in Land and Freedom, though he had the defence that the Spanish Civil War still retained a degree of obscurity. You may feel less secure placing yourself in the hands of a film-maker who structures his movie to accommodate those members of the audience who are a bit fuzzy about that Second World War business. In its opening and closing minutes, Saving Private Ryan offers a reminder that the freedom you take for granted today was secured by conflicts resolved half a century ago. Funny that we couldn't be trusted to detect these resonances unassisted. Funny that the tale couldn't simply be told.

Saving Private Ryan is a film of interesting if contrived contrasts. One of the most pointed examples may be purely coincidental. As the Allied troops disembark on Omaha beach, the camera drifts underwater where a single bullet passes through the bodies of two soldiers. You can't shake the echo of an identical scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: that film was set in the Second World War as well, but back then the violence was fun; the stray bullet provoked laughs, not gasps. It's a telling lesson in the choreography of context - the same director, the same act of violence even, orchestrated to achieve entirely different results. Not for the first time, you may have a sense of Spielberg wrestling with his own inflexible image.

For most of the film, though, he is wrestling with an inflexible screenplay. The combat footage which Spielberg shoots is an attempt to create as close to a subjective, unstructured viewpoint as is humanly possible when you're lugging cameras around in the mud and then pruning the results down to the last millisecond in the comfort of your editing suite. What the screenwriter Robert Rodat has created is a piece of work which achieves the opposite effect. It is a model of organisation. Which would be just dandy if the film didn't begin by expressing a desire to articulate the chaos of war. Sure, bullets fly out of thin air, and you're as likely to be killed by a bomb that you are attempting to plant as by a wily German sniper. But nothing else about life during wartime is so arbitrary.

Did you know, for example, that squads were comprised of one member from each of the various personality groups? The team which Captain John Miller (Hanks) is left with after the massacre at Omaha Beach is a good example. There is the gruff Ernest Borgnine bulldog (Tom Sizemore). The cheeky Brooklyn wide-boy (Edward Burns). The intelligent, sensitive type whom everyone respects (Giovanni Ribisi) and the intelligent, sensitive type whom everyone ridicules because he hasn't learned to kill yet (Jeremy Davies). But don't worry. He will.

Rodat doesn't really go in for characterisation. In its place, everyone gets a story to tell, most of the stories expressing unexpected sensitivity, philosophical depth and sturdy heterosexuality, often all at the same time. It may be the single brilliant stroke of the script to deny that privilege to Miller. As the soldiers kill time, waiting for Nazi tanks to roll over the bridge which they have crammed with explosives, Miller mentions something which brings him happiness: the thought of his wife, pruning the garden. "Tell me about your wife and those rose-bushes," someone asks. "No," Miller says quietly but firmly. "That one I save just for me."

Hanks may be one of the only actors who could carry off a role as predictably righteous as Captain Miller and still suggest that there are parts of him no one will ever get to see. It helps that his face is starting to age and crease - his skin looks as rumpled and tattered as his uniform. And yet he can still draw on that boyish, flashing grin when he needs to. Some of his best moments are those which suggest a short circuit in his saintliness - when he witnesses two soldiers gunning down a German prisoner, you can't be sure exactly where his evident sympathies are directed.

The effortless power of Hanks's work provides another unwelcome contrast, underlining the clumsiness of Spielberg's manipulative techniques, which grow steadily less sophisticated with each film he makes. The clash between the battle sequences in Saving Private Ryan and the material in between is jarring and unhappy, and it comes very suddenly with a single camera movement and a murmur of John Williams' mournful score. After the indiscriminate carnage on Omaha Beach, the camera stops juddering and starts sweeping gracefully across the bodies lapped by the rusty-red waves, finally settling on the kitbag of a dead soldier - Pvt Ryan. From there, the film goes on to reveal that only one of the four Ryan brothers remains alive, and Captain Miller and his squad are dispatched to find him as bugles start tooting on the soundtrack, and you realise that the opening burst of formalist daring was only there to lull you into a false sense of insecurity.

It isn't the explicit violence of the opening section which is shocking - anyone who braved the Vietnam scenes of the Hughes Brothers' Dead Presidents is unlikely to experience peristalsis at the sight of a heap of unspooled intestines. Rather, the relentless motion of the camera, and Spielberg's disregard for visual and aural coherence, are more unsettling than any of the atrocities that he stages.

There are juxtapositions here which are the work of a great craftsman - between the dispassionate typists coldly bashing out tragic telegrams, and the sensitive voiceover reading their contents; between the gruff, bulky soldiers slouching around a gramophone, and the fragility of the Edith Piaf record which is being played on it; between the tragedy of your friends losing their legs and the urgency with which you must remove their ammunition and leave them for dead. But a director who switches so cleanly between two disparate styles can easily appear disloyal to both. It may be that the film's tentative, non-commital closing image - a gossamer-thin American flag rendered grey and bloodless by the sun blazing through its fabric - says more about Spielberg than anything in the preceding three hours.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz