Making the ultimate, the rawest, fiercest, most sorrowful and difficult, war movie is not what Steven Spielberg has achieved with Saving Private Ryan. Even the elite press, which has always thought of him as the people’s filmmaker, wallows breast-beatingly in the film’s rigorous and impressive realism. But Spielberg has actually done something that is no surprise at all, in fact, only he could have done it.

Traditionally, the World War II movie has taken two basic forms, one having approximately displaced the other. The sprawling, thinky meditation on this grandest of subjects, like the unheroic Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, tended to an anti-war bias and folded into its action literary theories of war, such as the modern horrors of mechanized warfare, in which the infantryman was a depersonalized cog in a crushing death machine. Stepping smartly on the heels of this genre was the action-heavy shoot-’em-up, war as a pretext for cinematic thrills, was The Dirty Dozen ever as fondly thought of in its own time as it is now? Less squeamish audiences slightly removed from war’s fresh memories were more willing to be engaged in the action on a purely visceral level.

Spielberg’s feat has been to bring these two strands together; Saving Private Ryan keeps all of its high-art promises while continually undermining them with action so fetishistic, masochistic, and unrepentant that the whole thing looks absolutely state-of-the-art. The war-movie buff can tick off Spielberg’s templates with ease, if he can count that fast; the film nabs the good bits out of everything, from Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, and showcases them in this gruesome, sprawling context like a string of gems in a spectacular new setting. It’s like the old TV series Combat, with a billion-dollar budget and boilerplate values tacked on for substance.

Spielberg believes that the mere fact of addressing a subject on film makes it important; hence his need to take a strong stance toward meaty topics, the Holocaust and slavery. (He’s firmly anti, by the way.) However spectacular the package, and they don’t come more spectacular than Saving Private Ryan, his films never do more than spout treacly pieties. In Jaws, Spielberg melded horror facts with larky tone to sketch all the big ideas about conflict, brotherhood, masculine competition, and terror of the unknown in breezy miniature, more than 20 minutes of banter among three men on a boat, that he does here writing in fireworks. The themes are the same, especially that of sacrifice, sentimental as it is inevitable, but the context is inflated. It is not enough, it should not be enough, to posit that war is hell to justify glorifying it to the extent that Spielberg does here. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that, but Spielberg has already proved that he doesn’t understand the Holocaust; how can he understand what we have become because of it?

One of the slickest ways to sidestep the infantryman-as-cog aspect of World War II is to create a subset of soldiers fighting a miniaturized incidental version of the war; Hollywood loves this ploy because it imparts humanity in a situation that denies men any. Screenwriter Robert Rodat (author of the excellent script for Fly Away Home) cobbles together a disparate crew out of the spent boys who have just taken Omaha Beach and sends them out on a private adventure. Back in Iowa, Mrs. Ryan is slated to receive three notices in one day regretting the deaths of three of her sons. The War Department fears bad press should the farm wife lose all her progeny in their war; it orders Army Ranger Capt. John Miller to round up a crew and find the fourth, Pvt. James Ryan, somewhere deep behind enemy lines.

Leaving aside the ludicrous and unmoving wraparound story, the film opens with the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The first 30 minutes are already famous for their unstinting gore and realism, Spielberg has actually compacted the bloodbath on the Normandy coast, which wasn’t called “the longest day” for nothing, into a trim and shapely bloodbath. It is a jaw-dropping piece of choreography. The terror, the randomness, the noise are unrelenting: The camera pans as casually as an eye, taking in close-up moments, a soldier has his arm blown off, hunts on the ground, and wanders off-screen holding the limb; a man drags a wounded comrade up the beach and looks back to see that he’s now carrying only a torso, and moving on. This is surely the greatest depiction of the D-Day invasion ever filmed; it’s also unnecessary. Why Miller (Tom Hanks) was plucked from Omaha to search for Pvt. Ryan behind enemy lines (where no paratroopers were dropped, even in error) is not explained. But Spielberg has won his place in history with this opening scene. Miller is a bit long in the tooth for a recruit. Plus he’s afflicted with a symbolic hand tremor, and Hanks is getting surprisingly acty in his prime years, a minor distraction. He rounds up a band of brothers, each with a different forte, Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), the company medic; Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore, who looks like a real lifer); Reiben, a big handsome cynic from Brooklyn (Edward Burns); Caparzo, a gentle, hulking Italian (Vin Diesel); Mellish, the smart-mouthed Jew (Adam Goldberg, always so good); and Pvt. Jackson (Barry Pepper), a Southern sniper who prays for perfect aim and always gets it, proving that God is on our side.

If this ensemble sounds like the standard bomber-crew variety-pack, it is, but the actors give their stale speeches about home and mama and crack wise with such freshness and confidence that even the types they are inhabiting seem brand-new. A rarity in modern movies, they have not only faces but voices, evocative, regional, American voices that accomplish the goal of such one-lone-squad premises: evoking the many in one. Ribisi, Sizemore, Pepper, and, as Ryan, Matt Damon especially transcend the material with both earnestness and grace; it is a shame to see them used as cannon fodder for Spielberg’s bizarre, obliterating symbolic understory.

The eighth crew member isn’t a human being but a stand-in for the guilty director, for pacifists, for all enemies of the American hawk. When Capt. Miller approaches Pvt. Upham (Jeremy Davies), asking if the private speaks any French or German, they’re going to ask the Germans where Ryan is?, Upham awkwardly leaps up and explains in a rush that his German is perfect, with a touch of Bavarian, and his French passably good. Then he grabs two things for the long march: his typewriter and German helmet. Miller holds up a tiny pencil and directs Upham back to his own helmet. Within 30 seconds this character has displayed irrelevance, front-line incompetence, general unmanliness, and hints of treachery. Upham’s role is to take punches for the intellectuals and those who would make war an abstract notion through their hatred of it; when he can no longer view war abstractly, when it sits on his head and tears down every hoity-toity notion he’s ever had, Upham is destined to betray his brothers through cowardice and come away the hero when the danger has passed.

Upham’s symbolic position is jarring not only because it is both unpleasant and craven, but because it contrasts with the less fraught personalities of the rest of the crew. He’s a caricature of the ivory-tower know-nothing, a bloodless would-be writer who tells his captain that war will be “good for” him and claims to be writing a book on the bonds of soldierly brotherhood, although his macho comrades casually exclude him. The cowardice of the intellectualism for which he stands takes him out of direct action (he can’t be trusted with a weapon), putting his comrades in danger, but in a larger sense his type and its sins of omission are held directly responsible for the danger that this war may not be won, indeed, the Jews’ fate is symbolically in his hands when he wimps out spectacularly.

Spielberg personalizes this connection between Upham and the fate of the Jews, extrapolating his own role in re-examining the horrors of the midcentury through his hapless pawn. At one point, Upham pinches a rifle telescope and takes refuge to observe the action through it. Here he is blatantly at a remove, a nonparticipant, the Rubicon of the lens separating him from actual experience, and he is an exact stand-in for the role of director in full apology for the historical presumptuousness of both this film and Schindler’s List, I wasn’t there, I’m only the instrument.

But if Spielberg has twinges of conscience that there may be more to this war thing than he’s getting to, they don’t last, those treacly pieties are more powerful and easier to assert than the unreconcilable contradictions of war. The question of relative value, of how much the fight was worth, is built into the story and strongly affirmed, even while the visuals argue against. Saving Private Ryan is a bloody, glamorous justification of war, filmed like a Hallmark card for sentimental hawks. The combination of humility and hubris is astounding, Oliver Stone spends his career apologizing on our behalf for Vietnam and all it has wrought, only to have Spielberg swoop in, blissfully free from internal conflict, and bestow absolution upon America.

The look of the film is gritty and picturesque, but even the most visually electrifying moments are undone by their context. Upon finding Ryan and the ragtag crew he’s with trying to hold a bridge, Miller’s company stays to help fight the next wave of Germans. They take their places and wait, allowing for the ravishing incongruity of three soldiers lounging on church steps, with Upham standing beside a gleaming Victrola as Edith Piaf quavers like a clarion across the blasted rubble. But, here as in the movies Spielberg borrows from, the men seem to know how long they’ve got, realism dictates they should be as tense and hysterical as in the scenes in which conflict is imminent.

Much more effective are the beautiful bits of deep structure buried in the action like musical leitmotifs, like the elegant hand signals Jackson relays from the bell tower, a bit of combat minutiae hinted at in an earlier conversation between Miller and a near-deaf soldier. And every so often, the director gives naturalistic details equal play with his big moments; the camera zooms slowly in on a Ryan brother dead on the beach, linking the film’s action and human stories with cinematic artfulness, but the momentarily confusing presence of dozens of dead fish in the lapping red waves, they’ve been blasted from the sea like trout from a dynamited lake, gives the shot a visceral, true-life wallop.

Saving Private Ryan is as rousing as an honest victory in a righteous war, and as impossible; but the world is probably a better place for this piece of art. What is troubling is not the film’s dedication to gory realism, that’s an aesthetic concern, but the fact of its existence. Millennial anxiety, baby-boom nostalgia, a “return to traditional values” have been cited as explanations for the World War II explosion. These arguments are facile; in peacetime, men always yearn for a crucible by which to measure their manhood. Over the past few years, the media have been frantically supplying scenarios in which America is not only successful but justified in the greatest test of all. Saving Private Ryan, for all its period veracity, suggests not wish fulfillment but preparation. In the light of day, it’s a psychological snake pit and a meretricious, rivetingly watchable Hollywood movie; at 3 a.m., it’s a pep-talk for the apocalypse.