Steven Spielberg's new picture, one of his best, is a sandwich. The meat of the tale concerns a bunch of U.S. Army Rangers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), who are sent into Normandy to rescue Ryan (Matt Damon), the sole survivor of four brothers. On either side of this bold endeavor you get half an hour of unyielding combat: first, the D Day landings on Omaha Beach and, later, a consummate last stand in which too few Americans try to hold an inland bridge against too many Germans and too many tanks. Most viewers will be impressed but unsurprised by the central section; it feels wrought, and finely scripted (by Robert Rodat), and nudged by sentimentality.
The reason that they will carry the movie lodged in their minds is the infernal, brain-shaking quality of the battle scenes; Spielberg obviously decided that blood and guts meant just that, and so he arranged his violence into a semblance of pure disorder. The illusion holds, complete with severed limbs and wellsprings of blood, and it feels honorable; Spielberg's preachy movies can be an awful grind, but, apart from a disposable coda, this new work is too swift (and often too inaudible) to weigh you down. It feels like an atonement for the sins of "Amistad."
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