I was stunned when I first saw Saving Private Ryan on opening day, 24 July, 1998. I had never seen war depicted so realistically, so heart-breaking, graphic, and impactful. I held onto the names of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks like a mantra through the film, to guide me through it, to make everything be ok.
I imagined what it would have been like for my maternal grandfather, who served in the ETO (something he never spoke of) and the terrible things he must have seen, and done (?).
Settling in for this film again, as I return to the War genre of the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book, its final selection, I braced myself anew for the impact this film would have on me.
And I wasn’t the only one. Spielberg’s stunning film walked away with five Oscars that year, Best Director (missing Best Picture somehow), Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Editing and Best Sound Effects Editing.
Tom Hanks platys Captain Miller, who after surviving the D-Day assault on Omaha Beach is given the questionable assignment of looking for one man, a Private Ryan (Matt Damon) to send him home. Ryan’s three brothers are both KIA, and it’s been decided that the young private has got himself a ticket home.
So, this time, the mission is a man.
Following the jarring, and brutal opening on Omaha Beach, Miller and his squad, filled out by actors Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Ed Burns, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, and Giovanni Ribisi, travel across war-torn France to find Ryan, coming into conflict with Nazis, and their own souls as they weigh the cost of a human’s life, and demand that Ryan’s be worth the price paid.
Beautifully shot, each actor layers their characters and each is given moments and beats, small gasps against the onslaught of war. Hanks is masterful as the enigmatic captain that no one knows anything about, until his backstory is revealed in an emotionally powerful scene.
I love Jaws, I love Close Encounters, and Raiders, but this, coupled with Schindler’s List, may be one of Spielberg’s most important works, and it highlights the true hero of the 20th century, the American G.I. and all those like them who went to war for their countries to fight one of the most terrible evils to tread the Earth.
Over the course of three hours, the viewer is guided by Spielberg’s stable directorial hand, and Hanks leading performance through a slice of the horror that was the Second World War.
Unrelenting in its depiction of war, Saving private Ryan is a landmark film, one that will endure and affect viewers for decades to come. This is definitely one of my top films of all time, and it remains a stunning watch, and makes me want to thank a veteran every time I meet one.