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At the Movies

‘Saving Private Ryan,’ and a splendidly depressing Russian movie


Saving Private Ryan (Dreamworks/Paramount) made this World War II veteran appreciate as never before how lucky I was not to hit the beach at Normandy until several weeks after D-day.

Spielberg’s retelling of the Americans’ invasion of Normandy in 1944 is a brutally violent movie in which the violence has a serious purpose. The female guidance counselor with whom I saw “Ryan” said she felt “punished” by the movie but was glad to have seen it. Correcting the glib heroism of most war films and the exploitative violence of so much that is offered as entertainment today, Spielberg insists on showing us “how these boys really died.”

The first 25 minutes of “Ryan” is a brilliant technical achievement and will be studied, frame by frame, in film classes for years to come; no one should complain when photographer Janusz Kaminski gets an Oscar. Earsplitting sound, the sense of total chaos, the bloody body parts -- we participate in the action as if we were operating the kind of hand-held, open-shuttered camera combat photographers used in World War II.

There is no way to take in all the carefully edited details that rush past us from the time -- about 7 a.m. on June 6 -- we spot Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his company of Rangers preparing to go ashore. Many of them never make it to the beach, where reddened water washes in on the sand. There are hellish shots of mutilated bodies as Spielberg relentlessly drives the action forward. Even Tom Hanks’ hand is shaking; a few seconds later, he’s yelling directions to his squad, which we can’t hear because of the gunfire. The Germans in their hilltop bunker relentlessly go on raking the soldiers below; there is no way to clamber up to take the position without paying an impossible price.

We couldn’t have put up with such a sequence if it had lasted much longer; at the same time, the more than two hours of “Saving Private Ryan” that follow are inevitably anticlimactic. By not introducing us to the men who make the Omaha beach landing, perhaps Spielberg has given their anonymous deaths greater immediacy, but the rest of the movie is not very successful at individualizing the soldiers under Capt. Miller’s command.

The strong cast assembled by the director cannot dispel the sense of cliché, though Tom Sizemore lends strength and dignity as the veteran Sgt. Horvath, and Barry Pepper is memorable as the Bible-quoting southern sharpshooter. The role of Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), however, the college boy who serves as interpreter and freezes in panic when his comrades are in a desperate firefight, seems painfully exaggerated.

Between the glorious shots of an American flag that fill the wide screen at beginning and end, the atmosphere of proud patriotism is undermined by the strained central plot involving Pvt. James Ryan. After the State Department has learned that Ryan’s three brothers have been killed in combat, Gen. George C. Marshall himself gives the order to locate the one remaining son, who is behind German lines in Normandy, and send him back to his mother. Although Capt. Miller first debunks the assignment as a public relations ploy -- in fact, it leads to unnecessary casualties and is a most unlikely diversion of manpower -- he manages to knit his squad together to carry it out. The movie’s tension slackens as they argue, engage in brief skirmishes and march through the French countryside; they even have time to listen to an Edith Piaf recording.

There is a powerful emotional moment when they locate Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), but the following battle sequence, in which they have to take on an endless number of German tanks, is much too long. Although the ingenuity of devising “sticky bombs” against the tanks will help the movie’s popularity, the sequence is too reminiscent of the standard Hollywood glorification of American courage against superior odds. Tom Hanks, who again deserves superlatives for conveying low-key heroism, reveals Capt. Miller’s awareness that becoming a first-rate combat officer has turned him into someone he barely recognizes. His final scene with Ryan is moving, but the effect is spoiled by bathos -- framing the movie with the visit of Ryan as an elderly man to Miller’s grave.

Spielberg’s film, neither pro- nor antiwar, ignores the presence of European allies and never explains why we are fighting; it simply assumes we are united in a just cause. “Saving Private Ryan” deserves unstinted praise for both its technical brilliance and its avoidance of ideology. But the director’s understanding of “authenticity” -- “how these boys really died” -- is too thin.

My wife complains regularly that I like to take her to depressing Russian movies. The Thief (Stratosphere Entertainment), written and directed by Pavel Chukhrai, a 1997 Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, is a first-rate example.

The time is 1952. Katya, a beautiful young widow (Yekaterina Rednikova), and her 6-year-old son, Sanya (Misha Philipchuk) are playing cards on a train journey. A handsome officer, Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), enters their compartment, puts his belongings away and tells Sanya, “Keep an eye on my stuff.”

The rest of the movie is devoted to the temptations and dangers associated with growing up, instantly visualized when Sanya spies Tolyan’s revolver as one of the things he is to watch over. The problem is that nothing about Tolyan is what it seems: He is no officer but a professional thief. By the time Katya realizes this, however, she has fallen for this confident, attractive man and is willing to pretend that they are husband and wife so that they can get a room in a communal apartment when they get off the train.

The strength of “The Thief” is that it sees things primarily from Sanya’s point of view. Although the blue-eyed boy would awaken a protective instinct in any viewer, the director avoids sentimentality by emphasizing the ambiguity of Sanya’s hopes. At first he refuses to call Tolyan “father” and has occasional dreams of a real father he doesn’t remember, but eventually, though frightened by sounds of Katya and Tolyan’s lovemaking, he is increasingly fascinated by the glamour and menace of his new “uncle.” When a neighborhood gang picks on Sanya, Tolyan tells him to fight back ruthlessly. Sanya uses a stick on one of his tormenters, prompting the latter’s father to ask Tolyan to punish his “son”; instead, Tolyan knocks the father down and stamps on the gang’s bicycles.

Sanya is also impressed by Uncle Tolyan’s tattoos, especially one of Joseph Stalin. Chukhrai’s film is more interested in character oddities and details of lower-class Russian life than in a political allegory about Russian fascination with their abusive dictator, but it is hardly accidental that one of Tolyan’s ruses is to encourage unsuspecting neighbors into conviviality by proposing toasts to Stalin -- it’s part of his preparation for a robbery.

Vladimir Mashkov, a well-known Russian star, is a convincing lady-killer whose ruthlessness convincingly holds a kind of fascination. Even though we have seen the corruption he has visited on both Katya and Sanya, there is a terrible credibility in the climactic scene in which Sanya runs after the truck that is taking Tolyan to prison, desperately crying out “Daddy! Daddy!”

“That was the day,” Sanya comments in voice-over, “that I betrayed my father.”

Joseph Cunneen is coeditor of Cross Currents.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998