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.