To call Saving Private Ryan one of the greatest war films of all time is not a bold statement by any stretch of the imagination. Most people who have seen the film would probably agree with that sentiment. Yet, just because something is obvious does not mean it should never be said. Ahead of its 25th anniversary on July 24, I can happily say (or, in this case, write) that Saving Private Ryan is a masterpiece that continues to age like a fine wine.
At the center of Saving Private Ryan is Tom Hanks, who stars as Captain John Miller. In 1998, Hanks was in the middle of one of the greatest movie star runs Hollywood has ever seen. After narrating Radio Flyer in 1992, these are the movies Hanks starred in leading up to Saving Private Ryan: A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Toy Story, and That Thing You Do! Calling him “A-list” would be an understatement at that time in Hanks’s career.
Hanks received the script first from his agent and then shared it with his friend, Steven Spielberg. Just as Hanks was at the top of his game, so too was Spielberg, one of the best directors of his generation. In 1998, Spielberg, who was in his early 50s, had nothing left to prove, thanks to a directorial resume that included Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, three Indiana Jones films, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List. Yet, Spielberg directed the WWII epic because of Hanks, who convinced his friend to join the project because they simply wanted to work together.
The film opens with elderly Ryan, whose identity is revealed at the end of the film, visiting a grave at the Normandy Cemetery. After four minutes, Spielberg cuts to June 6, 1944, when the U.S. Army stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day. For the next 25 minutes, Spielberg orchestrates an unforgettable scene that’s still revered in 2023. From men vomiting on the boat to Miller’s shaky, PTSD hands going for a drink, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński perfectly capture the calm before the storm as the men await their fates, which for most of them, will be death.
As soon as the boat’s door opens, bullets fly into the heads and chests of the soldiers in the front. The horrors that soon follow are harrowing as the action is set to the sounds of machine gun bullets and the agonizing screams of dying soldiers. The audience has no time to think and process what’s going on. They can only react and move forward, just like the soldiers on the beach. Many World War II veterans experienced PTSD watching the sequence because it was so realistic. While rewatching the scene, I constantly said, “How did Spielberg pull this off?” The scene took three to four weeks to film and cost $12 million. The result became one of the most remarkable sequences of filmmaking of the last 50 years.
After storming the beaches at Normandy, Miller is tasked with recovering James Francis Ryan, played by Matt Damon, seven months after Good Will Hunting. Damon Private Ryan’s three brothers are killed in action, so Miller is ordered to rescue Ryan and send him home to his mother. Miller assembles a crew of soldiers to accompany him on the mission: Richard Reiben (Edward Burns), Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg), and Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies).
The casting of all nine men remains a stroke of genius from the masterful Spielberg. Hanks is old enough to play a captain to young men but still feels close enough in age to have served together. These actors look like broken and battered-down WWII soldiers. They do not resemble actors who spent three months in the gym on a high-protein diet to achieve an unrealistic body. These actors have attainable bodies and facial features, which only adds to the realism.
To build unity between Hanks and the actors in his unit, Spielberg sent them to boot camp before filming with Captain Dale Dye, a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps who worked with Oliver Stone on Platoon. For six days, the actors went through hell and back to understand the conditions faced by soldiers in WWII. The actors ran for miles in full gear, rain or shine, faced simulated attacks, underwent weapons training, completed hundreds of push-ups and calisthenics, and barely slept. Burns called the boot camp the “worst experience” of his life. After three days, the cast wanted to quit, and Spielberg left the decision to Hanks. Quit or continue? Like a true leader, Hanks told the actors that they owe it to the people they’re representing to “get it right,” and to get it right, they have to “experience some of what they experienced.”
The boot camp worked as the unit resembles a dysfunctional family full of love, loyalty, and respect for one another. The soldiers fool around and argue with each other, but when it’s time to work, “Dad,” aka Miller, steps in to settle any issue. Whether it’s on the beaches of Normandy or in the desolate town of Ramelle, the bond formed in boot camp is very apparent, especially in their hatred of Ryan. Behind the scenes, Damon shared that Spielberg did not make him go to boot camp so the other actors would resent him. It worked, as the scenes where Miller’s unit argues over the mission to save Ryan come from a place of truthful hatred.
It’s difficult to discuss Saving Private Ryan without mentioning the travesty that occurred at the 71st Academy Awards. The two most nominated films that year were Shakespeare in Love, with 13 nominations, and Saving Private Ryan, with 11 nominations. Saving Private Ryan was the frontrunner heading into the ceremony, winning Best Drama at the Golden Globes and ending as the second-highest-grossing film at the box office in 1998.
However, Shakespeare in Love defeated Saving Private Ryan to win Best Picture in one of the biggest upsets in Oscars’ history. Saving Private Ryan isn’t the only film to ever be snubbed. How Green My Valley beat Citizen Kane and Dances with Wolves bested Goodfellas. But Shakespeare in Love’s victory felt different because of one man: Harvey Weinstein. The Miramax founder single-handedly swayed the outcome of Best Picture through a bully campaign. From bad-mouthing Saving Private Ryan (“It was all in the first 15 minutes”) to forcing his talent to participate in an absorbent amount of press, Weinstein’s ruthless tactics worked as Shakespeare in Love walked away with the top prize.
For those expecting me to hate Shakespeare in Love, think again. Shakespeare in Love is not a bad movie. It features a great, Oscar-winning performance from Gwyneth Paltrow. Yet, Shakespeare in Love is not Saving Private Ryan. Shakespeare in Love does not have any scene on the level of Saving Private Ryan’s battle sequences or monologues from Hanks. There’s more heart and respect between Miller’s unit than between William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps.
Sticking with the Academy, why did Hanks lose to Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful? With all due respect to Mr. Benigni, his performance is only notable because he became the third actor to win an Oscar for a non-English speaking role. Hanks’s performance is iconic as the actor continued his hot streak. Speaking of acting, Burns and Sizemore were nowhere to be found in the supporting categories, which looks worse now than in 1998. Their argument over whether to continue the mission after Reiben threatens to desert is as intense and emotionally gripping as the battle sequences.
Overall, Saving Private Ryan, along with The Thin Red Line, revived interest in World War II, leading to more movies and TV shows about this period. Hanks and Spielberg continued their WWII collaboration with Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Even without the Oscar, Saving Private Ryan’s legacy is already cemented. It’s in the conversation for the greatest war film of all time, and its impact on movies and pop culture is still felt 25 years later.
Saving Private Ryan is now streaming on Pluto TV and Paramount+.