Cinema: Steven Spielberg: Reel War

Steven Spielberg peers at the face of battle as Hollywood never has before

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First, there's the flag. It snaps bravely enough in the breeze blowing in off the sea. But there's something just slightly off about the image. Old Glory looks, well, old in this backlighted image--thin, faded, antique, like the unambiguous emotions it used to stir in an age less given to irony and selfishness than our own. Steven Spielberg, in his new film, Saving Private Ryan, wants us to think about that, about how "the deep pride we once felt in our flag" has given way "to cynicism about our colors."

Then there's the memory of those distant days, now preserved by faltering old men. One such, accompanied by his anxious wife and middle-aged children, shuffles up the shady walk edging the military cemetery that stands where the guns once looked down on Omaha Beach, where American troops began the bloody business of liberating Europe in World War II. He makes his way through ranks of crosses, their fearful symmetry broken here and there by a Star of David. Finding the grave he seeks, he falls to his knees sobbing, overwhelmed by that flood of memories it is Spielberg's business to reimagine, then to incise on the minds of a generation dismayingly heedless of history.

Now comes the chaos that challenges patriotic fervor as well as the mind's capacity to comprehend horror--the D-day landing on Omaha: seasick soldiers slaughtered the minute the ramps on their landing boats are lowered; other men clambering over the sides trying to avoid the fire, only to drown under the weight of their packs; the surf turning red with the blood of the slaughtered; some who make it to the narrow beach huddling immobilized yet pathetically vulnerable behind what little cover they can find. A few inch forward, hoping perhaps that being a moving target is safer than being a stationary one.

It makes no difference. Whether you live or die here is entirely a matter of chance, not survival tactics. Spielberg's handheld cameras thrust us into this maelstrom, and his superb editing creates from these bits and pieces a mosaic of terror. We see as the soldiers see, from belly level, in flashes and fragments, none more vivid than the shot, rendered almost casually, of a soldier staggering along, carrying his severed arm--the struggle against mortality encapsulated in what amounts to a sidelong glance.

It is quite possibly the greatest combat sequence ever made, in part because it is so fanatically detailed, in part because the action is so compressed--all that panic in such a tight spot--in part because the horror is so long sustained, for more than 20 relentless minutes. "I wanted the audience in the arena, not sitting off to one side," says Spielberg. "I didn't want to make something it was easy to look away from."

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