Steven Spielberg' s latest 'serious' picture opens and closes with an American flag billowing in the wind, an apropos image for a film whose stirring patriotic sentiment is a valentine to Ronald Reagan's America, where old-fashioned might and courage triumph over all. The director has always shown a fascination with World War II, as evidenced by 1941, Schindler's List, Empire of the Sun, and the Nazi element in the Indiana Jones films. Given World War II's clear-cut good-vs.-evil dynamic, this is no surprise; Spielberg's not a director who would get within a mile of a Vietnam war film.

Saving Private Ryan is more akin to Raiders of the Lost Ark than it is to Schindler's List, even though it strives to be a similar emotionally wrenching experience. As the film is not based on a factual incident, Spielberg's intention isn't to present a history lesson but to show you what war is really like. The film's opening sequence does exactly that; it's an astonishing re-creation of the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach, Normandy. Against a deafening surround-sound aural assault, the frequently hand-held camera is often literally at sea level as bullets rip the air in a flash of red, limbs are blown off, guts pour out of soldiers, medics perform ghastly life-saving attempts and, finally, waves pound the shore in a crimson river of blood. The use of desaturated film stock and other efforts to roll back camera technology lends a period newsreel feel to the carnage. It's the kind of sequence that sets Spielberg the master craftsman head and shoulders above his peers, and is such a marvel of sight and sound that nothing that follows in this nearly three-hour film can come close to it. What will no doubt be much discussed is the graphic intensity and gore of the battle sequences. If viewers winced at Ralph Fiennes casually picking off prisoners with his rifle in Schindler's List, there are a number of moments in this film where audience members will be gasping and shielding their eyes, if not walking out. Spielberg's use of graphic realism is a sobering observation that war is hell and you wouldn't want to be there, no matter how Hollywood has glamorized it in the past.

Following his participation in that brutal Normandy landing, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) learns that his next assignment is an unusual one. He's asked to lead a squad of eight soldiers on a mission to find Private James Ryan, an Iowa farmboy whose mother is about to receive a telegram informing her that her other three sons have all been killed in action just days apart. Ryan is to somehow be found and returned safely home. Miller observes that it's a public-relations effort requiring him to 'find a needle in a stack of needles,' but the pragmatic captain, who's so close to the vest that his men have a betting pool on his background, knows orders are orders and just hopes that Ryan is worth it and that he goes home and 'cures some disease or invents a longer-lasting lightbulb.' Miller's squad includes Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), his longtime stalwart sidekick; sharp-tongued Private Reiben (Edward Burns), a Brooklyn native who voices the strongest skepticism about the mission; Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a Bible-quoting sharpshooter; and Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), a skittish interpreter who hasn't fired a gun since basic training and is dragged into the mission because he knows French and German. Spielberg sees Upham as representing his audience, who are also likely green to war and certainly haven't experienced it on celluloid as it is presented here. Rounding out the squad are two more privates, played by Vin Diesel and Adam Goldberg, and a medic (Giovanni Ribisi).

Robert Rodat's platitude-heavy script's central paradox, 'How do you find decency in the hell of warfare?' is what attracted Spielberg to the project. With solemnly intoned lines like Miller's 'Know that with every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel,' and Horvath's 'We might look back and say that saving Private Ryan was the one noble thing in the whole bloody war,' it's best to approach the film as an adventure story, a tale of heroism against all odds, rather than view it as the piece of flag-waving nostalgia that the filmmaker intends. When the top military brass debate the logic of risking the lives of eight men to save one and settle the issue by reading a letter aloud from Abraham Lincoln, you know what kind of territory you're in. Besides the opening Normandy battle, there are a few brilliantly conceived sequences, such as a terrifically tense, ultimately tragic scene where a soldier disobeys Miller and tries to save a little girl, and a climactic battle set in a bombed-out Normandy village. (At one point, when a tank suddenly rises over a bunker hiding Miller and Ryan, I couldn't help but think of Jaws.)

Spielberg's assembled cast is as fine an ensemble as one could hope for. Hanks is a solidly obvious choice for the lead-who else would American moviegoers want to follow into war? Of the rest of the squad, Sizemore, Burns and Barry Pepper are particularly effective, as is Davies, who makes quite an impression as a sensitive soldier with a taste for Emerson and a ring of ammunition around his neck falsely suggesting a readiness for battle. (The audience at the screening I attended yelled at Davies to fight and elicited a bloodthirsty cheer when he eventually fired his weapon, which made me want to crawl under my seat.) The film's namesake is in the hands of Matt Damon, whose improbably bright smile and straight teeth continue to be his most impressive asset. The film was shot in France, England and Ireland, whose coast provided the location and whose army provided 750 extras for the D-Day scene. Outstanding work is turned in by production designer Tom Sanders, editor Michael Kahn, and director of photography Janusz Kaminski, who won an Academy Award for his lensing of Schindler's List. John Williams' bombastic, intrusive score is not a highlight. And the film's final, wretchedly sentimental scene at Arlington National Cemetery gives Spielberg's detractors all the ammunition they need; it practically negates the virtuosity of the filmmaking which preceded it, and goes to show that, as talented as the director is, his desire to touch the masses frequently exposes him as a calculating magician but something less than an artist.

--Chris Grunden