On first blush, it is not easy to see what all the ruckus over Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" is about. Critics have enthused that no film has ever captured the tactile sensation of warfare as well as "Ryan" does in its two long orgiastic end pieces, during which hundreds of soldiers are either casually ripped by bullets or gruesomely disemboweled. As these critics see it, Spielberg's grim choreography has redeemed World War II both from the history books and from old jingoistic Hollywood movies, the way his "Schindler's List" redeemed the Holocaust.

In each case, America's most visceral filmmaker has made a visceral testament to the greatest horrors of our time.Although it is no reflection on Spielberg, it is certainly an odd and sad state of affairs that these horrors can only be made meaningful to later generations because the acknowledged master of contemporary popular culture has blessed them with his treatment. World War II might as well be the Trojan War as far as most Generation Xers are concerned, but Spielberg has made it matter again, which is why war veterans are as grateful to him now as Holocaust survivors were for "Schindler's List." By converting real terror into movie terror, the experience of death into an uncanny facsimile of death, he has made people care the only way they seem able to care nowadays.

Plenty of other movies have depicted warfare every bit as graphically and horrifyingly as "Private Ryan," which makes the hosannas showered on it and the crowds flocking to see it even more perplexing.

This isn't to say that "Private Ryan" isn't a good and powerful film; it is deeply affecting, and Tom Hanks's performance is heart-rending. It is to say that the phenomenon of the movie, as well as its effect, may owe less to its aesthetics, despite what the critics say, than to what the film represents and the things we are able to invest in it. In effect, "Saving Private Ryan" has become the bloody, heartfelt cultural salve to the divisions and tumult that have riven this country throughout the postwar period. The text of the film may be warfare 1944; the subtext is unity 1998.

It is certainly no wonder that Americans now hark back to the last time this nation was united, the last time we were all engaged in common cause: World War II. Most of us can't remember when we haven't been at one another's throats. In fact, it didn't take long after the war for fissures to open. The Cold War that erupted from the hot one was clearly not only an international battle between the free world and Communist aggressors; it rapidly became a domestic battle between those who loathed the liberal New Deal policies of the late President Roosevelt and those who supported them, between those who were convinced the country was being subverted by Communist agents and those who denied it. This long, jagged crack would run through U.S. politics for 50 years, sometimes overtly, as with Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's red-baiting, sometimes latently, as with the prosecution of the Vietnam War by craven Democrats fearful of being accused of surrendering Southeast Asia to communism.

More than a manifestation of the Cold War mentality, the Vietnam War became a generational divide that amply demonstrated how the verities of World War II no longer applied. Viewed through the scrim of World War II, many older Americans understandably saw Vietnam as a good war conducted to halt the spread of Communist tyranny, just as World War II had been fought to halt Nazism. For those for whom World War II was a historical event rather than a living memory, just as understandably the Vietnam War was a folly of overweening pride and arrogance, which is why the films of that war are about disillusion and disorientation rather than ennoblement and purpose.

In the 20-odd years since that war's chaotic climax, the country has been rent by many issues, from race relations to abortion to the distribution of wealth. But the fall of communism brought an end to the Cold War and with it an end to the passions that inflamed our political culture. No one party can claim to be the repository of patriotism anymore. No one party can claim to fight for U.S. interests while its opponents subvert U.S. values. Instead, the parties now squabble over personal morality. It may seem sordid, but it is an advance over what this nation has suffered since 1946. Better Monica S. Lewinsky's dress than McCarthy's list.

Still, if some kind of great, subtle healing has occurred, it needed a signal event to give it expression and shape, some rallying point that would enable us to share the sense of rapprochement with our fellow Americans. This desire, not graphic bloodshed, is what really accounts for the grand effusions over "Saving Private Ryan."

For most Americans, the big and good-hearted among us, the movie is a sobering homecoming - to our country, our values, our sense of community. That is why it touches so many so deeply. By providing an occasion for reconciliation, it ends, finally, the rifts and brings together, at long last, what the Cold War had torn asunder. In short, it is not Private Ryan who gets saved; it is the lost vision of America.