Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper

Running Time: 2h 49m

Rated: R

TMM Score: 5 stars out of 5

STRENGTHS: Everything

WEAKNESSES: Maaaaaaybe some pacing issues? Maybe?


Captain Miller and his squad, after surviving the assault on Normandy, must cross France in a desperate search for Private Ryan, whose three brothers were killed in action.


Capturing the Eye

I’ve seen this movie, probably, a half dozen times or so. I’m a fan of the HBO series "Band of Brothers” which Tom Hanks and Spielberg were both Producers on, so, already knowing the story and setting fairly well, I figured I would put this on and get some emails done, balance my accounts, and maybe do some drawing.

That did not happen. Even the opening sequence which takes place in modern day as an old man walks through fields of graves, marked with white crosses and stars of David, drew me in, and before I knew it we were halfway up the beach, the French countryside, and eventually defending the bridge.

Try as I did to get other things done, there is something about the way Spielberg (“Jaws”) directs that captures the attention and eye of the viewer.

I love a good WW2 movie, but when Spielberg makes one, it makes every other one I’ve seen feel like a staged reenactment or kids playing war in the back lot of the neighborhood.

This film puts you there. On that day. In the s#!%.


Right Up the Middle

The story is a simple one really. A private in the 101st Airborne’s brothers are all killed in action on D-Day. When army brass realizes that Mrs. Ryan, their mother, is about to receive three telegrams, each relating the death of one of her sons, all on the same day, they give an Army Ranger Captain (Tom Hanks, “The Post”) orders to find and bring home, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon, “The Martian”).

Of course this is easier said than done and as the squad searches all over France for the missing brother, members are faced with questions of duty, sacrifice, war, and mercy.

Perhaps it is the simplicity of the plot that allows this film to be so profound. Many times, I feel, that the simple stories make better movies because they allow for the amount of time an actor needs to breathe the ins an outs of a character. It allows the cinematographer time to pick shots that do more than cover a scene, but instead, uncover its hidden imagery and depths. 

In this film it allows Spielberg time to envelop you in an experience of war’s brutality, its despair, and its glory in a way that allows complexity. 

Slow Complexity

This movie could have been two hours long and PG-13. Cut out a bunch of that boring talking, cut away from soldiers deaths just a fraction of a second quicker, maybe amp up the heroism of some of the soldiers and before you know it this film is accessible to everyone with a feel good, “America does what’s right, even when it’s tough message."


The way that it is though, it may lose some people due to the violence. It may lose some people because some of the soldiers do terrible things to the Germans. It may lose some people because it leaves open ended, whether the sacrifice was all worth it.

But that is part of why the film is brilliant. It doesn’t shy away from showing things in their complexity, and knowing that time is needed to show the muddled mess that is both war and the human heart, Spielberg takes that time. The time that it takes to understand the myriad ways that war is brutal and the human heart is both frail and strong at the same time.

Frenetic Simplicity

Having said all that, it isn’t like this is a slow movie. It’s action sequences are second to none. The scale of them and the commitment to detail is astonishing. There are no extras in this film, just kind of running in the back ground or shooting guns at phantom planes in the sky which would be added later in post. Every inch of the screen is alive with little stories playing out, even in the back ground.

Yet in all the frenzied cacophony of battle, you are never lost. You know the objectives, the challenges, and the risks. This simplicity makes them more engaging than most of the action sequences in films produced today, in which you probably don’t have any clue how many blocks away from Iron Man, Hawkeye is. Minute specificity is what engages the audience, not broad generality.

Earning It

This film won’t leave you cheering and laughing because the Hulk just kicked Loki’s butt. When a battle is won, it is a hard earned victory. You won’t walk away feeling happy about life. You’ll walk out feeling solemn and reverent.

This is why it is a remarkable film, and, I would argue, the greatest war film ever made. You won’t throw it on in the background for your kids to watch while you do the dishes and you probably shouldn’t watch it with your aging grandfather at Christmastime, but if you ever wonder about why your grandpa never talks about the war, or if you think Memorial Day is just a great camping weekend, then watch “Saving Private Ryan.”

Let it make those days reverent in your heart and give you respect for the sacrifices of body, mind, and heart that those before and current with us made and make. 


Review Written By:

Michael McDonald