NEW YORK — Steven Spielberg's new movie, "Saving Private Ryan," begins with a burst of battlefield violence so long, savage, and relentless that it has become a subject of debate even before the picture's arrival in theaters.
Spielberg evidently wants to avoid the artificiality of many World War II films and resensitize audiences to the true horrors of combat. This may not be a selling point for people who feel they're sensitized enough already. And at the other end of spectrum, viewers jaded by the random destructiveness of "Armageddon" and its ilk may see the gore of "Saving Private Ryan" as just another nerve-jolting Hollywood spectacle.
After this obstreperous opening, the picture moves into its long centerpiece, about an officer (Tom Hanks) commanded to take his squad behind enemy lines and rescue an ordinary private. The reason is that Private Ryan's three brothers have all been killed in action, and a compassionate general is determined to spare the boy's mother from sacrificing all her children. Disgruntled by the arbitrariness of their assignment, the squad plods off to find the elusive GI, wondering why their own mothers aren't worthy of similar consideration.
The first and second portions of "Saving Private Ryan" each raise important moral issues. The opening sequence implicitly poses the question of whether depicting combat in all its hideous detail serves useful and progressive purposes - educating the young, discouraging warlike thinking - or simply blends into today's general din of violent entertainment.
The events involving Private Ryan and his would-be rescuers probe more intricate ethical matters, asking whether the saving of one man's life can justify putting many others into serious jeopardy.
The end of the movie extends this question still further, suggesting that the beneficiary of such treatment may forever wonder if he was worthy of the sacrifices made for him. It's worth noting that the question of "Why me?" has troubled many survivors of the Holocaust, which was the subject of "Schindler's List," still Spielberg's most resonant film. It is clearly an issue he cares deeply about.
What holds "Saving Private Ryan" short of excellence, despite the vigor of its acting and the impact of Spielberg's technical skills, is its failure to explore these moral dilemmas with all the depth and dignity they deserve. In the movie's last half hour, they are finessed by a second large-scale battle scene, as terrifying as the first but also more predictable, more manipulative, more calculated in its dramatic and psychological effects. It gives the story a rousing conclusion, but its deft exploitation of war-movie conventions also gives combat the sheen of Hollywood excitement that Spielberg avoided at the start of the picture.
This aside, "Saving Private Ryan" is certain to be one of the year's most popular and talked-about movies. As for the awards race that's starting to pick up midsummer steam, Hanks will surely be on the front Oscar lines for his nuanced portrayal of the sensitive squad leader, and GI sidekicks Edward Burns and Matt Damon may well flank him in the supporting-actor category.
Also expect kudos for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams, and other Spielberg regulars. Although their work here is not the best of their careers, they help make "Saving Private Ryan" a walloping patriotic tale, if not the rich moral lesson it might have been.
* Rated R; contains sustained, horrific violence and very foul language. David Sterritt's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org