Two decades later, Spielberg's war epic still holds up as an affecting and brutal look at heroism and camaraderie during World War II.
Since its release in 1998, Saving Private Ryan has retained its status as a truly great war film – despite recent competition from Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Wright’s take on Churchill in Darkest Hour. The film follows Tom Hanks as Captain John H. Miller in a struggle through the battlefields of France during World War II, as his squad attempt to find and save the titular Private Ryan (Matt Damon) – the only remaining living son of four, the others all killed in action. Perhaps the defining segment of the film is the gruelling opening stretch, which features Captain Miller among the soldiers landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Saving Private Ryan is a very visceral depiction of war, unlike some more modern films the real bodily injury that took place is shown directly. This uncompromising approach, paired with a behemoth 169-minute runtime, makes the film deserving of the reputation it has gained as a wartime epic. Miller’s personal battle to find Ryan, the hardships that accompany this mission, and the conflicts that arise between Miller and his squad help create a fully-fledged ensemble of believable characters with clear motivations and personalities. There are some lapses: the sniper Jackson (Barry Pepper), quietly whispering Bible verses as he fires shots, comes off as kitschy to this day. Though it makes a crucial point, the cowardice of Upham (Jeremy Davies) becomes so obnoxious that it’s hard to find him sympathetic in the end. Overall, however, the characters make for a compelling group dynamic. Hanks, as the near-infallible leader, gives another of his many career-defining performances.
Naturally, with Saving Private Ryan being a Spielberg production, the veracity of setting and design is impressive. The landing at Omaha provides a close replica of the real beach, and the scene cost twelve million dollars in itself. Of course, there are going to be some inaccuracies but nothing sticks out as recognisably off. The very beginning and end of the film are set at the real Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, adding an extra layer of emotional weight to some of the most poignant scenes in the film.
One of the main themes raised by Saving Private Ryan is that of patriotism in war, though it is not entirely clear where the film stands on some of the acts committed by US soldiers. The apparent promotion of patriotism feels out of place in scenes where prisoners of war are mocked and murdered, actively going against international law. This adds a sense of ambiguity to the representation of conflict – it is rarely, if ever, a plain ‘Good vs. Evil’ affair. Building on the canon of Spielberg’s interest in matters of war, Saving Private Ryan proves a violent but affecting piece of cinema. The opening scene on the beach is perhaps the greatest fictional realisation of war history to be produced. As a whole, it remains one of the most astonishingly crafted war epics ever made.
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