Picks and Pans Review: Saving Private Ryan

updated 08/03/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/03/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies

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On Omaha Beach in France, a GI lurches about, desperately looking for something he has lost. He spots it and picks it up. It is his arm, blown off at the elbow by shrapnel. This is just one of the many images of horror glimpsed through the water, smoke and endless gunfire in the stunning D Day landing sequence that comes early on in director Steven Spielberg's masterful and moving new movie about World War II, Saving Private Ryan. It is this extended (24 minutes) bloody battle sequence, in which handheld camera work contributes to a terrifying you-are-there feel, that sets the tone for the movie. Men are mowed down, the ocean turns red, and the noise and slaughter never stop.

Trying to stay alive through all this madness is Capt. John Miller (Hanks; see story on page 80) and his men. Those who survive D Day are handed another mission: Go behind enemy lines and find Private Ryan (Damon), whose three brothers have all been killed in combat. The orders are to get him out and send him home. "Where's the sense of risking the eight of us to save one guy?" grouses one of Hanks's men.

His question is at the movie's core. Why fight at all? What does any one man owe another? And was it all worth it? Helped by a thoughtful script by Robert Rodat, a performance by Hanks so carefully considered and so quietly right that the man should start making room on his mantel for a third Oscar right now, and exceptional work by the rest of the ensemble cast, Ryan raises all these issues. The answers the movie provides are never pat, jingoistic responses about country and duty but rather more complicated ones about friends, family and simple decency. After seeing Ryan, many of us will look at our aging fathers or grandfathers with a newfound respect. And ponder what we, as individuals and as a nation, are doing today to justify the sacrifices those men made on our behalf more than half a century ago. (R)

Bottom Line: This is Spielberg's big one about the Big One, and it's flat-out great

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