More than 20 years after terrorizing teen-agers with ``Jaws,'' Steven Spielberg bloodies the waters for adults with ``Saving Private Ryan,'' a World War II epic of savage, near-surreal reality.

Set over a 10-day period that begins with the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, ``Saving Private Ryan'' features two long battle scenes that confirm Spielberg as the most technically gifted director of his time. They're as graphic, and as disturbing, as anything put on screen, so disturbing even Spielberg backs off from what they reveal.

Tom Hanks stars as Capt. John Miller, the frightened leader of an eight-man squad that has survived D-Day and has been given the unwanted mission of tracking down a missing soldier, Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon). His three older brothers were killed in action and Miller's job is to tell him he's going home.

The battles happen near the beginning and near the end of the movie, taking up about an hour. They're filmed in documentary style: real time, handheld camera, no music. Then again, Spielberg doesn't need music. He arranges the sounds of war into his own symphony, of bullets pinging off metal and severing flesh, of soldiers vomiting and screaming, of blood pouring out of helmets and dirt exploding into the sky.

The scenes are everything the director could have wanted, and more, because the movie would have worked better without them. Having argued that war is insanity, devastating both for conquerors and conquered, Spielberg follows with a conventional story of heroism and sacrifice. The master of illusion doesn't know what to make of disillusion.

With a running time of 170 minutes, ``Saving Private Ryan'' is structured like war itself, long periods of boredom between moments of the most horrifying excitement. The film has the look and the feel of greatness, but something is missing. Hanks' role is underwritten, and so is everyone else's. Despite some talented actors, including Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore and Jeremy Davies, the GIs remain character types rather than characters: a Jew, an Italian, a pencil pusher, a wisecracking New Yorker, a Bible-quoting Southerner. War may be a faceless affair, but war movies shouldn't be.

According to the production notes, Spielberg's intention was to find ``decency in the hell of warfare,'' a search he pursued more thoughtfully in ``Schindler's List.'' Battle footage aside, there's something naive about ``Saving Private Ryan.'' The screenwriter, Robert Rodat, is best known for the children's film ``Fly Away Home.'' John Williams' bland, hymnlike score feels as out of place as the casting of Ted Danson as an Army captain.

Hanks, like Spielberg a symbol of innocence and idealism, makes his first appearance in one of the director's films. Why did they wait so long? They were meant for each other, like Frank Capra and James Stewart. But ``Saving Private Ryan'' was the wrong project for them. Capra and Stewart, in ``It's a Wonderful Life,'' did a better job of taking us to the abyss and back. Then again, they had just returned from the war.


An Amblin Entertainment production, ``Saving Private Ryan'' is a joint-presentation of Paramount Pictures and Spielberg's DreamWorks Pictures. The film is rated R, for profanity and extensive, graphic violence.

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.