SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Writer: Robert Rodat
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#71), 5 Oscars (Best Director – Steven Spielberg, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing), 6 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Actor – Tom Hanks, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with ads (with cable subscription) on TNT App, Stream with subscription to HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

When Steven Spielberg had his first breakout hit with Jaws, few might have predicted at the time that he would go on to not only become the clear definitive director of his generation, but would direct what are today, and will be for the foreseeable future, the two definitive movies about World War II. Saving Private Ryan has become not just a popular movie about the Normandy Invasion, it has become THE document of a major historical event. Whether this is what actually happened or not, whether this is what it was like or not, this is now what most people, even people who have never seen this movie, think the Normandy Invasion was like (I say two movies because Schindler’s List has taken on the same role with regard to the Holocaust). This is what happened now. Without Saving Private Ryan, I really don’t think that the narrative around the “Greatest Generation” would be the same today. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your point of view.

As many critics have observed, Spielberg gives viewers here essentially two movies in one, something that is very much on purpose. The justly famous first 45 minutes or so of the movie are an unrelenting battle sequence showing the American invasion of Normandy. Never before or since has anyone depicted war quite as intensely as this. Few have even tried, though there have been a few attempts in recent years (Christopher Nolan consulted extensively with Spielberg before filming the battle sequences in Dunkirk). After that, things settle down, and Spielberg makes what is a fairly typical war movie, in story if not in style. Most of the good guys die, but they’re never anything but heroic, they beat the bad guys, and they do indeed save Private Ryan (Matt Damon, who was cast in this relatively minor part before his breakout role in Good Will Hunting, which ended up coming out before this movie).

The story of the film is based on several similar incidents that actually did occur during World War II, when all but one of several brothers were killed in action and the US military allowed the final brother to go home. In the movie, Captain Jim Miller (Tom Hanks) leads a unit that is sent to go get a paratrooper named Ryan whose four other brothers have died. The members of the unit are never drawn in anything other than broad strokes. All we ever really get about Hanks’ character is that he used to be a teacher in Pennsylvania and wants to get home to his wife, and we get even less about the others. Miller’s squad reads like a who’s who of “hey, it’s that guy!” actors of circa-2000, including Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, and Barry Pepper, along with Vin Diesel in his first major film role. Jeremy Davies joins them after the initial beach invasion because he can speak German and French, and is probably the second-best drawn character in the movie. He is probably too smart and sensitive for all this, and in the end is the only character in the movie allowed to act with anything other than stoic bravery.

For the purposes of the movie, we don’t need to know more about the characters, because that’s not what Spielberg is going for. He wants to honor those who fought in Normandy and provide those who weren’t with a window into what it could have been like to be there. If Miller or any of the others were too specific a character, they would detract from the universality of experience for which Spielberg seems to be striving. It was those goals that allowed him to cast every minor role in the movie with a major actor, because association with this project was considered so prestigious. Those who have never watched Ryan may be surprised to find that Bryan Cranston, Paul Giamatti, Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, and a young Nathan Fillion are all in exactly one scene of this movie each. You won’t find any women in that list, however; there only are two women with brief speaking roles in the movie, and one of them is in French and we’re not supposed to understand her.

From a cinematic perspective, Saving Private Ryan has had an outsized influence on action sequences, particularly battle scenes from war movies, ever since. Particularly in the long, opening battle on the beach (shot not in Normandy but on a beach in Ireland south of Dublin), Spielberg uses a combination of handheld camerawork, de-saturated film stock to mute colors and evoke black and white film reels, and close-up angles of his subjects. This gives, more than any other movie before, the viewer of the perspective of a soldier in the midst of a chaotic battle. It works extremely well in this movie. Unfortunately, half the action sequences since then have been shot in the exact same way. The thing is, most action sequences only work if the viewer has a basic sense of the geography of what’s happening (and also not a headache). In Ryan, the soldiers have no sense of the larger view of what’s happening, so it’s OK that we don’t really either. That is an extremely specific set of circumstances to this movie that, in the name of “immediacy,” other filmmakers have copied over and over in situations where it does not apply.

I’m not the first person to say this: if the first forty-five minutes or so of Saving Private Ryan were the entire thing, it would have no problem calling it a truly great movie. But the movie goes on for another two hours after that, a two hours that I could really take or leave. Given the elegiac nature and tone of the movie, and the way it has entered the culture as this essential record of a major event in the national history, it feels both counter-productive and not really worthwhile to spend a long time on the movie’s flaws. I mean, it does have maybe the most effective battle sequence ever filmed, maybe that’s enough on its own to deserve a place among the greatest movies ever made. 

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