War is not an adventure. It is a nightmarish descent into Hell where human life is cheap and human dignity expendable. On the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, the men participating in the Allied invasion of the Normandy Coast are terrified of what lies ahead of them. As the doors of the landing crafts open, hundreds of soldiers are immediately cut down by a barrage of enemy fire. There is no safety anywhere as those who make it into the water are hit by bullets as well. On Omaha Beach, men are blown to bits, the wounded cry for their mothers, and medics are unable to move in a devastating crossfire that cuts down even more soldiers.

This incredible, painful, and dramatic opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, which lasts over 20 minutes, exposes the hellishness of war as no other film has done before. Platoon Captain Miller (Tom Hanks in an Academy Award-nominated performance) survives this ordeal only to be given an odd assignment. On the orders of General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell), he is to find Private James Ryan, a paratrooper whose three brothers all died on D-Day in other arenas of the war. Sending him home is the Army's way of showing gratitude for the sacrifices of his Iowa farm family.

The soldiers chosen for this mission of mercy don't see it that way. The fear of sudden death sits on their shoulders and dogs every step they take. Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) has gathered jars of earth from each of the battle zones he has survived. Private Reiben (Edward Burns), a wiseacre from Brooklyn, is angered by the injustice of perhaps sacrificing many men from his unit to save one man they don't know. Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a hillbilly sharpshooter, believes that God is on his side directing him in a noble crusade against the enemy. Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), a Jew from Yonkers, reveals his motivation for fighting as he taunts Nazi prisoners. Private Caparzo, a New York Italian, is touched by the plight of a little girl in a village. And Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), an interpreter drafted into his first mission, tries to act like the others but he is nearly paralyzed with fear.

As Miller leads his men through the French countryside, their mettle is tested. When medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is critically wounded, the men huddle around him in a circle of love. Miller has to share the secret of his own identity and his past in order to avert a mutiny. When they finally locate Private Ryan (Matt Damon) he surprises them all with a response no one expects. The last vestiges of dignity in Miller and those under his charge are expended in a final furious battle with the Germans in an abandoned village.

Steven Spielberg proves with Saving Private Ryan that he is the world's greatest director, a creative genius whose movies always stir the emotions and bring the senses to full alert. Nominated for an Academy Award for best film of 1998, this is the most important antiwar drama ever made. Screenplay writer Robert Rodat has invested in Captain Miller and his men symbolic and universal significance.

Violence is not redemptive, and there is no grandeur in dying for one's country. All that really matters in the destructive rapacity of combat are small acts of decency. In war's desperate setting, kindness is not only a habit of the heart but the only saving grace. These emblematic moments — represented here by the actions of Miller and his men — are brilliant lights in the savage darkness of destruction and death.