Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #46
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks and Matt Damon
In high school, I had a history teacher who said he couldn't stand Saving Private Ryan. It seemed to defy all logic that someone with as generally good taste in film as his could actually hate what is widely considered one of the greatest war movies of all time, so we pressed him for details. He had no problem with the depiction of World War II – in fact, he said he's spoken with veterans who were at Normandy who say the opening sequence is as close to capturing the battle as anything they've seen. He didn't mind the performances, or the cinematography, or the script. No, he had a problem with the premise that the United States Army would send soldiers behind enemy lines to rescue one man. Granted, he had a fair point; the Army would likely never risk more than one life to save one life, regardless of the situation, but saying that this made the movie unwatchable seemed a little over the top. If we accept that Spielberg is making a piece of fiction and that he doesn't pretend it's based on a true story, then we're left with one of the best war movies ever made, and perhaps the one with the greatest cinematography of all time.
It's difficult to say if a war movie made in 1998 has had a huge influence on war films that have come since – partly because 1998 was relatively recent, and partly because big-name war movies just don't get made that often anymore – but I can see Saving Private Ryan's stamp much more clearly in another medium: video games. The Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series rip some of the scenes from this film almost shot for shot, and the cinematic look that those games have been praised as having owes a huge debt to Spielberg's camera angles and fast-paced battle sequences. For being one of the most sobering, horrifying depictions of war ever captured on film, the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan are absolutely gorgeous. Spielberg doesn't shy away from showing the horrors of war as they really are, and with a jaded 1998 audience, a great script, a great cast, and an R-rating behind him, he's able to do basically whatever he sees fit. It's a bold proclamation, but I think Saving Private Ryan as a directorial work is a step up from Schindler's List.
There are basically two kinds of war films. One makes the viewer say "Awesome!" when things blow up and people die. The other makes the viewer think about the bitter cost that war imposes on human beings. Saving Private Ryan falls under the latter category. Matt Damon has three brothers, and they all die. Tom Hanks comes to save him, and he dies. Men are killed by methods that could easily be considered "cool" in, say, Inglourious Basterds, but here, it's tragic. And yet, the ultimate message is uplifting, and, for my American readers, patriotic. How anyone could look at the cemetery at Omaha Beach filled with white crosses representing American soldiers without understanding the importance of what our military does for us and how important the Second World War was for our freedoms is beyond me. Men like Captain John Miller (Hanks' character) made this country what it is today, and even if it takes watching a film like Saving Private Ryan to remind us, we should all stand up and salute our military for helping let us live the way we do. If that's too schmaltzy and flag-waving, you'll forgive me, but it's the truth.
The Good: This is Spielberg's finest hour as a director, in my opinion.
The Bad: Matt Damon hadn't quite come into his own as an actor yet, and Hanks acts circles around him. Funny, since the opposite would probably be true if this film was made in 2010.
The Skinny: Very deserving of its spot. God bless America.