Saving Private Ryan
When Steven Spielberg was an adolescent, his first home movie was a backyard war film. When he toured Europe with Duel in his 20s, he saw old men crumble in front of headstones at Omaha Beach. That image became the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, his film of a mission following the D-day invasion that many have called the most realistic—and maybe the best—war film ever. With 1998 production standards, Spielberg has been able to create a stunning, unparalleled view of war as hell. We are at Omaha Beach as troops are slaughtered by Germans yet…
When Steven Spielberg was an adolescent, his first home movie was a backyard war film. When he toured Europe with Duel in his 20s, he saw old men crumble in front of headstones at Omaha Beach. That image became the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, his film of a mission following the D-day invasion that many have called the most realistic—and maybe the best—war film ever. With 1998 production standards, Spielberg has been able to create a stunning, unparalleled view of war as hell. We are at Omaha Beach as troops are slaughtered by Germans yet overcome the almost insurmountable odds.
A stalwart Tom Hanks plays Captain Miller, a soldier’s soldier, who takes a small band of troops behind enemy lines to retrieve a private whose three brothers have recently been killed in action. It’s a public relations move for the Army, but it has historical precedent dating back to the Civil War. Some critics of the film have labeled the central characters stereotypes. If that is so, this movie gives stereotypes a good name: Tom Sizemore as the deft sergeant, Edward Burns as the hotheaded Private Reiben, Barry Pepper as the religious sniper, Adam Goldberg as the lone Jew, Vin Diesel as the oversize Private Caparzo, Giovanni Ribisi as the soulful medic, and Jeremy Davies, who as a meek corporal gives the film its most memorable performance.
The movie is as heavy and realistic as Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, but it’s more kinetic. Spielberg and his ace technicians (the film won five Oscars: editing (Michael Kahn), cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), sound, sound effects, and directing) deliver battle sequences that wash over the eyes and hit the gut. The violence is extreme but never gratuitous. The final battle, a dizzying display of gusto, empathy, and chaos, leads to a profound repose. Saving Private Ryan touches us deeper than Schindler because it succinctly links the past with how we should feel today. It’s the film Spielberg was destined to make. —Doug Thomas
Since its release in 1998, Steven Spielberg’s D-Day drama Saving Private Ryan has become hugely influential: everything, from the opening sequence of Gladiator (“Saving Marcus Aurelius”) to the marvellous 10-hour TV series Band of Brothers, has been made in its shadow. There have been many previous attempts to recreate the D-Day landings on screen (notably, the epic The Longest Day), but thanks to Spielberg’s freewheeling hand-held camerawork, Ryan was the first time an audience really felt like they were there, storming up Omaha Beach in the face of withering enemy fire.
After the indelible opening sequence, however, the film is not without problems. The story, though based on an American Civil War incident, feels like it was concocted simply to fuel Spielberg’s sentimental streak. In standard Hollywood fashion the Germans remain a faceless foe (with the exception of one charmless character who turns out to be both a coward and a turncoat); and the Tom Hanks-led platoon consists of far too many stereotypes: the doughty Sergeant; the thick-necked Private; the Southern man religious sniper; the cowardly Corporal. Matt Damon seems improbably clean-cut as the titular Private in need of rescue (though that may well be the point); and why do they all run straight up that hill towards an enemy machine gun post anyway? Some non-US critics have complained that Ryan portrays only the American D-Day experience, but it is an American film made and financed by Americans after all. Accepting both its relatively narrow remit and its lachrymose inclinations, Saving Private Ryan deserves its place in the pantheon of great war pictures. —Mark Walker
Barnes and Noble
Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan instantly took its place in the pantheon of great war movies by setting a new standard for its shockingly realistic D-Day sequences—scenes that redefined the graphic depiction of film violence. When a platoon, led by Tom Hanks, receives orders to rescue the title character (Matt Damon) from behind enemy lines, the value of a life is questioned. Can Ryan be worth the potential sacrifice of eight men? Spielberg put his young actors through a modified boot camp, and their harrowing real-life experience informs their portrayals. Tom Sizemore (one of the many psychos in Natural Born Killers) displays great humanity as Sergeant Horvath, while Giovanni Ribisi and Barry Pepper turn in career-making performances as a medic and a sniper. Through it all, Spielberg’s remarkable, unfussy technique keeps the narrative’s preachiness from overwhelming the film. He and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski always place the camera in exactly the right perspective to the action, providing even the quiet moments with great power. Squeamish viewers be forewarned: The violence here is truly brutal. But that is part of Spielberg’s point: War is hell. Or, as Hanks puts it: “Every time I kill somebody, I get farther away from home.” Ben Wolf