One of the greatest war movies ever made, Spielberg’s visceral and immersive approach and the film’s strong technical prowess continue to amaze more than two decades on.
Dir. Steven Spielberg
1998 | USA | Drama/War | 169 mins | 1.85:1 | English, French, German & Czech
M18 (passed clean) for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language
Cast: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel
Plot: Following the Normandy Landings, a group of U.S. soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.
Awards: Won 5 Oscars – Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing; Nom. for 6 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Makeup, Best Original Score
Subject Matter: Moderate – Courage, Heroism, Sacrifice, WWII
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Released in the same year as Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, a masterpiece in its own right and also about WWII, Saving Private Ryan is arguably the best-known war film of the last thirty years.
Winning Best Director for Steven Spielberg, but unceremoniously losing out to Shakespeare in Love in the Best Picture race, Saving Private Ryan is also one of the greatest war movies ever made.
I remember seeing it first on a 3-disc VCD, before revisiting it on DVD, Blu-ray, and now Netflix in 4K. It always excites me to revisit a film like this as it is not just a reminder of Spielberg’s extraordinary technical and storytelling ability, but also a celebration of the heroism (albeit solemnly) as countless men sacrificed their lives for the greater good eight decades ago.
“Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.”
It is of course impossible to forget the opening Normandy beach sequence—still as intense as any in cinema—yet it is what comes after that I enjoy the most: the journey of a ragtag of soldiers (as led by Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller) who are tasked to navigate through enemy territory to find the elusive Private Ryan.
Spielberg regular John Williams tries a different approach to scoring, less of his usual rousing style; instead, it’s understated and more reflective here, particularly the use of mournful horns. I think it is one of his most underappreciated works, with ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ as perfect a music piece about heroism and sacrifice as any.
Spielberg’s visceral approach continues to amaze more than two decades on—my favourite segment is the entire last hour where the soldiers attempt to strategise and mount the defence of a bridge from the encroaching Nazis.
It has everything from quiet, revelatory drama to astonishing war action set-pieces to harrowing individual situations of life-and-death, very much encapsulating what it might have felt like to be a foot soldier in WWII.