Knowing that I'd eventually get to write about Saving Private Ryan - to grapple with my own wildly inconsistent feelings about it over the years, as well as to challenge all of you, my readers, to do the same - has been one of the things that I've been most excited about since the very beginning of this blog's Hollywood Century project. So here we are, and here we grapple, and I have 16 years of accumulated thoughts, praise, complaints, and misgivings to get through in the next couple thousand words. Apologies in advance if it gets a little messy.

The confusion I have long felt about the film is not least because there are two films we talk about when we talk about Saving Private Ryan: one is 21 minutes long, and it maybe the best-crafted & most powerful combat film ever produced. The other is much, much longer, and it is a largely trite, generic, and in some important ways philosophically dubious story of a squad in WWII trudging through France in June, 1944, while complaining in ways that perfectly map onto the pre-established clichés for each of the eight men in that squad. Actually, there's a third movie, too: it's the opening and closing bookends set in, presumably, 1998 itself, the year of the film's release, and it is among the clumsiest, most disastrously-conceived material in the entirety of Steven Spielberg's directorial corpus.

But let's stick with the actual meat of the movie first. As virtually everybody knows, I imagine, Saving Private Ryan opens (after that 1998 scene) at the onset of the D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy, follows along with one tiny cluster of American soldiers for quite a while, and then continues on as those soldiers are assigned a most peculiar mission three days after the Allied forces successfully land. To wit: they are to trek deep into the French countryside, where they must find one PFC James Ryan, whose three brothers have all died recently, and whom the Army brass has decided shall be saved from the hell of war, so that his mother doesn't have to suffer the agony of losing all her children in quick succession.

Admitting out front that the movie has other priorities on its mind, the first problem we run into is structural. The movie begins three times, and each new beginning seems to have virtually nothing to do with what we've already seen. The transition out of the opening scene makes absolutely no sense once you know where the film is going, implying that the old man (Harrison Young) we're watching in the American war cemetery at Normandy is recalling his experience on that beach, staring a thousand-yard stare as the soundtrack begins to filter in the pre-invasion sounds of waves, boats, and men shuffling. I think there's really no conceivable way to read the editing and sound, even the way the man's face is held in close-up, without making that assumption; but we'll find out at the end that he was miles and miles inland during the invasion. Strike one.

Then comes the invasion itself, a three-act mini-movie unto itself, that has no connection to the ultimate attempt to find Private Ryan. We're introduced to most of our main characters, but we don't know that we're being introduced to them: the sequence ties itself to Captain Jim Miller, who we know is important because he's played by Tom Hanks, but we don't know who he is by name yet, and we don't have any notion of who the people are around him. This isn't an introduction, but a totally unrelated narrative chunk that happens to concern the same characters. It's the backstory to the actual plot of Saving Private Ryan only to the same degree that watching Don Corleone having eggs and coffee while reading the morning paper would have been a useful opening scene to The Godfather.

Now, we are not dumb, and so we know that Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat had other things on their mind in including the D-Day invasion than telling a clear, cohesive story. Saving Private Ryan is, explicitly, a film paying tribute to the men who fought and died in World War II, and that is far more important to it than telling a story or fleshing out characters. And in that regard, the Omaha Beach scene is far more important and comprehensible, since its function is to show the chaos and agony of war, so that we'll have a better sense for the rest of the movie of what kind of terrible suffering these men go through. Its value, that is to say, is entirely thematic - and I'll return to that, but now let's turn to the battle scene itself.

It is a work of genius, of course. I can't imagine how anyone but the most morbid Spielberg hater could deny that. What is remarkable to me above all things is how the invasion sequence in this film is absolutely and in every way the work of a populist filmmaker: the craftsmanship and ability to lead the audience to an emotional place he has preselected (the commonest knock against Spielberg, but also to my mind the least-convincing: all movies are emotionally manipulative, he's just unusually direct in showing he he does it) that he'd honed over years of making some of the biggest crowd-pleasers in cinema history turns out to work just as well, and in exactly the same ways, when he's trying to flatten us into terrified submission. Saving Private Ryan's combat scenes are fucking brilliant filmmaking, innovative and groundbreaking in ways that so quickly became standard procedure for war movies, and especially WWII movies, that it's difficult to quite see what makes it special. But oh, how special it is: just the way that Janusz Kamiński shot it (to my mind, this is the film that cemented him as an essential part of the Spielberg team) would be worth a paper all by itself. The short version is that he relies on excessive grain and desaturation to create a bleak, almost nauseating feeling, which is then built on by his celebrated use of a decreased shutter angle, giving the images a sharp, metallic precision and render the movements with staccato bursts that keep feeling like they're going to launch into fast-motion. And on top of that, we also find extensive use of erratic hand-held camera work, Spielberg's open attempt to copy documentary style, which extends to allowing dirt and stage blood to slop all over the lens.

All that hyper-realistic cinematography creates an immersive reality more than virtually any other combat scene I can name, and that's even without mentioning the film's amazing sound mix - an astonishingly powerful experience in theaters, one that I remember 16 years later more clearly than things I saw last week. Every single bullet feels like it was placed specifically to suggest physical space and the sheer scale of the D-Day invasion, echoing on all sides, now horribly close and now terribly far. For that is the other thing that sets this scene above so many other great combat sequences: the feeling of littleness it creates. We follow a tiny number of people through a confusingly-defined space, and we never get a sense of what's going on all throughout the rest of the beach except in the flashes that Miller is able to spot out of the corner of his eye. But that roaring sound mix tells all: it describes with all its layers a battleground stretching out into infinity, bodies dying invisibly - and sometimes quite visibly, right before our eyes, in blunt scenes of carnage - in which the one man we're following barely registers as an individual.

There are no moments of Spielbergian sentiment, and yet the whole thing is finely tuned and orchestrated using his very particular skills: an awareness of how to use brief, iconic gestures to thrust us into a state of high emotion. Panic, in this case, something not found in such protracted form anywhere else in the director's career. The exact things that make this work are what make it the work of a mainstream entertainer: things are communicated simply, directly, and without a trace of subtlety, and our gaze is directed exactly where the filmmakers want it to be directed, so that we can be walloped by whatever they're going to show us next.

It's tremendously powerful and crushing, and then it ends, and Saving Private Ryan actually, finally starts. You can tell exactly where it happens, because the John Williams score that has been silent for 21 minutes asserts itself, and in the blink of an eye this harsh, sober experience turns gloppy and dumb. For this particular Williams score is offensively sentimental and pushy and omnipresent beyond even the caricature of his work; I wouldn't hesitate a moment to call it the worst score he composed for any Spielberg film. At any rate, it's the only one of his scores for the director that actively makes the film worse, cutting into Kamiński's sober, bleached-out images and the uncharacteristic hardness of Spielberg's camera and direction to his actors with weepy, patriotic horns and militaristic elegy.

That being said, the A-plot of Saving Private Ryan is so beset by trouble spots that singling out the music is a bit unfair. To begin with, Miller's squad reveals itself to be populated exclusively by clichés who are precisely described the first time we see them, and never break out of our immediate preconception as to what they're going to do. Besides our taciturn captain, we have the Hothead (Edward Burns), the Tough GI (Tom Sizemore) the Bible-Thumping Southerner (Barry Pepper), the Sarcastic Jew (Adam Goldberg), the Pleasant Medic (Giovanni Ribisi), the Warmhearted Rough Italian (Vin Diesel), and most importantly of all, the Untrained Newbie and Audience/Director Surrogate (Jeremy Davies), the one with a sturdy moral sense but also no survival instinct at all. I suspect, if pressed, Spielberg and Rodat would defend their pack of unimaginative stereotypes as a tribute to the WWII films of yore, all the way back to the '40s when those stereotypes started to congeal. Except that Saving Private Ryan absolutely, transparently wants to be more complex than that: to present battle as a horrible experience, not an ennobling one, and to present the trauma of warfare as serving more to flatten soldiers' humanity rather than to make them Manly American Men. Relying on musty old stock characters gets in the way of that.

And anyway, the direction of the plot over the next two hours is so all-over-the-map that no consistent theme emerges anyway; the only clear message that has emerged by the end is the conviction that, well, Our Boys sure did see some terrible things over there. Critically, the film never quite makes up its mind whether all the killing and seeing the enemy as a faceless Other is ultimately soul-damaging or not; the arc of Davies's character famously muddies all of this, since it's structured largely to show how he comes to realise that killing prisoners is okay - and yet, the way that Spielberg and Kamiński film his ultimate act of killing, with the camera trained on Davies's face and never showing the German body fall, doesn't permit the viewer a sense of celebration and suggests that we're watching him fall into the dark side. But that kind of moral ambiguity fits not at all with the many other scenes.

Running down everything that works beautifully (a scene where a little girl assaults her dad for putting her in harm's way in the act of trying to save her; Hanks's cold-blooded recitation of the big Norman Rockwell speech about his homelife) and everything that doesn't (the bafflingly over-written scene with General Marshall, played by Harve Presnell, concocting the plot to save Private Ryan; pretty much every single beat focused on Pepper's sniper, who prays for guidance from God before killing his enemies, a potentially rich irony that Spielberg is palpably frightened to grapple with) would take too long, so suffice it to say that the film suffers from aimlessness and bloat, perked up frequently by individually piercing moments of character truth. And the film always, always looks perfect, capturing both painterly beauty and a sense of devastated coldness simultaneously. To be honest, winning the Best Director Oscar but losing Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love seems almost exactly right to me: Saving Private Ryan succeeds at the creation of stable tone and texture, but is messy and wandering as a drama (of course, exactly exactly right would have been The Thin Red Line making a clean sweep of everything but Kamiński's win, but it does nobody any good to pretend that was ever an option).

The film does eventually find focus and purpose again - and drops the damn Williams music - in another long combat scene, this time after the squad has found Private Ryan (Matt Damon - and Jesus, but the number of future famous people in this movie is impressive; Bryan Cranston and Nathan Fillion also pop up). It's a terrific piece of filmmaking, if not quite as radical in its technique. But unlike Omaha Beach, this climax isn't quite so much about the punishing brutality of war; it's more of a conventional action movie, rousing and saddening in equal measure. François Truffaut legendarily observed that no war film can truly argue against war, since they always make combat look exciting; this is not true at all of the grotesque opening sequence, but it is at least partially true of the finale. And that's without dragging in the cloying final scene, which looks at all the ambiguity threaded throughout even the weaker moments of the main feature, and says "well, fuck that", with a stirring coda in which it is clarified that to die in combat serving one's country is a Glorious Sacrifice, and those who fought but did not die are always going to be haunted by the conviction that they're not as morally good as the fallen. It's jingoistic pap, made worse by the film's only truly uninteresting cinematography, and Williams slobbering aural war memorial.

Saving Private Ryan achieved something that, even after a decade and a half, I still can't quite believe: this very long, depressing, unsparingly violent movie was the highest-grossing film of 1998 (domestically - worldwide, it was easily bested by Michael Bay's shrill Armageddon, which makes much more sense even though it's much sadder). It was, in fact, the last Steven Spielberg film to top the year's box office, and the last R-rated film to do so as well (NB: These words barely outlived the time of their composition, as another R-rated tribute to the traumas of American military men, American Sniper, was the U.S. box office champion of 2014. Still waiting for the next enormous Spielberg smash hit, though.). Much as he had done when getting in right at the first stages of a major new revival in dinosaur fandom with Jurassic Park, the director somehow managed to predict the Zeitgeist in some unfathomable way: 1998 also saw the release of Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation, and between the two projects, they triggered a wave of nostalgia for and interest in the culture surrounding World War II that I honestly have never figured out.

Whatever the case, something about this unremittingly bleak film, whose sops towards uplift and finding something purposeful in war feel messily splashed onto its overriding sense of desolation, struck an enormous chord with audiences. I can't argue that's not deserved, even though it's weird: Spielberg-the-sentimentalist transforming into Spielberg-the-unsmiling-chronicler leaves us with quite a sturdy array of well-built, emotionally transfixing moments. Much of it is foggy, and a small amount of it is actively objectionable, but so much of Saving Private Ryan works so well, and so undeniably, that even if I think it can only be regarded as one of Spielberg's most difficult "problem" films, it's absolutely the work of a supremely talented film director with an irreproachable, top-notch crew.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1998
-Terry Gilliam's final film that gets made without the world burning down around it, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is released
-Peter Weir and Andrew Niccol predict, then indict reality TV with The Truman Show
-Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner just wave their dicks right out there for everyone to see, pitting DreamWorks Animation's Antz and Pixar's A Bug's Life against each other

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1998
-Still the best movie ever built on video game narrative logic, Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run bows in Germany
-Nakata Hideo's Ringu inaugurates the modern era of J-horror
-Show Me Love - known more bluntly as Fucking Åmål in its native Sweden - introduces the world to the social realism of Lukas Moodysson