Saving Private Ryan (1998)
(for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and strong language)
Released: July 24, 1998
Runtime: 169 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon
I’m just going to get this out of the way upfront:
Shakespeare In Love deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan.
That’s not the quarantine talking. I believe that. (I actually wrote Shakespeare’s legendary Oscar upset for Collider.)
Look, if the decision were based solely on the opening D-Day sequence (which, undoubtedly, is how Steven Spielberg took home his second Directing Oscar, and rightfully so), then yes, Saving Private Ryan would’ve been the clear choice.
But there were two more hours to contend with.
As a whole movie, from start to finish, Shakespeare In Love is a perfect expression of its inspired conceit. Saving Private Ryan is not. The Academy got it right.
As with Amistad (and all five of Spielberg’s “noble” American history films – with Lincoln, Bridge Of Spies, and The Post to follow), Saving Private Ryan falls prey to talking too much.
The discussions here aren’t particularly provocative, either. Most of them just come off as earnest CliffsNotes from Just War Theory debates.
Indeed, the conversations these soldiers undertake are more akin to a group of Ethics professors (or perhaps their students), not of army grunts in the thick of it.
The platoon we follow is filled with archetypes, not authentic people, and each one throws in a pat perspective from the proverbial syllabus. They mix in some stock sentiments and regrets, too, but little more.
An overkill of philosophizing and speechifying make Saving Private Ryan too self-conscious of its own desired import, especially coming after the visceral chaotic inhumanity we saw on the beachheads of Normandy. (That epic of carnage truly gave us something to meditate on and think about.)
Now, with that little bombshell opinion out of the way:
Here’s the reason why it was vital for Spielberg to have made Saving Private Ryan exactly the way that he did.
Saving Private Ryan came out in the summer of 1998, three years before 9/11. As a nation in the long perpetual wake of Vietnam, we were still ambivalent about soldiers and war.
The successful Gulf War in 1991 was the first historical marker to positively shift our collective national perception of our armed forces and veterans. Where once there had been a grave disrespect and neglect, now Americans of all ideological stripes began to finally appreciate, value, and honor the service and sacrifice of soldiers and veterans once again.
But that was just a beginning. The wheel was still turning.
And when it came to films, war movies were almost universally anti-war. They were all critiques with politicized strains; not so much stories, but indictments. Many were important and necessary; some of those films were ones that veterans truly valued, evoking the feeling that they were finally being heard.
But the scale had tipped way out of balance.
Then came along Saving Private Ryan, the first Hollywood war movie in more than a generation to unabashedly – even humbly – honor the sacrifices of our soldiers and of our veterans.
It even forced us, as citizens, to ask a very important question: we were living lives worthy of those sacrifices?
Saving Private Ryan saluted The Greatest Generation. It was, in effect, the first war picture to do so since their kids’ generation — the Baby Boomers — had rebelled against them and everything they stood for.
And it came from a Baby Boomer.
The United States needed a movie like this, from a filmmaker like this, saying things like this. It was important that it was made, yes, but it was also important who made it.
And despite being heavy-handed at times, our culture needed this sermon.
It wasn’t Pro War. It was Pro Solider. Its posture wasn’t anger, but gratitude. (I can’t imagine anyone better suited than Tom Hanks to personify the unassuming virtues of those soldiers, the ones that the film was asking us to finally be grateful for with no qualifications.)
The film’s tone and worldview may have been a throwback, but the filmmaking of Saving Private Ryan was downright revolutionary.
In the combat sequences, from the opening Normandy invasion and onward, Steven Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski came up with a drop-frame technique to enhance the handheld camerawork. The footage was then desaturated as shadows and colors were crunched. This helped to create an aesthetic of chaos that had been previously unmatched, one conceived and implemented to perfection.
In pure cinematic terms, Saving Private Ryan captured the experience of modern warfare at new empathetic levels.
The 20-minute Normandy invasion is a landmark in film history, yes, but it’s also matched (and, at moments, arguably surpassed) in the climactic “hold the bridge” battle at Ramelle.
Though more limited in geographic scale, that finale incorporated even more complex aspects of choreography. Somehow, the logistics between action, camera, and real-time warfare recreation became an art.
(It’s worth noting that, combined, the two sequences of Normandy and Ramelle make up nearly an hour of the film’s 2-hour-and-45-minute run time.)
We get some of Spielberg’s most impressive Oners, too. Some shots in the Normandy sequence last longer than its quick-cutting approach would suggest or allow us to really perceive, and the finale battle has a 45-second tracking shot that goes from exterior to interior.
It constantly shifts what image or action is being framed before coming back outside again, all perfectly timed to match the progress of tank movement, mortar fire, and various explosions. It’s pretty mind boggling when you stop to consider what it took to capture that.
There’s also a more subtle Oner that’s 1:41 in length. It’s a scene around the midpoint when two platoons fight to hold then advance through a rainstorm. Like all of the combat scenes, this one lengthy shot has a lot of moving parts, including the platoons as they constantly shift, advance, and reposition.
That Oner tracks it all, but in a way that doesn’t draw overt attention to itself. Its subtlety is achieved by resting on a new frame once it has been created rather than having the camera continue to float or stay in motion. The frame stays static until the action and camera need to move again.
Spielberg — in collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn — not only changed forever how war is depicted on film; more broadly, they changed how action is depicted.
Saving Private Ryan’s influence can be seen everywhere from the Jason Bourne franchise to TV’s 24 to countless other movies and shows that have followed. (Kaminski, Kahn, and the crews from both sound categories all won Academy Awards, along with Spielberg, for their groundbreaking efforts.)
John Williams music, by stark contrast, never underscores the warfare. It’s only heard in the more sober stretches that play out in-between combat. His music doesn’t serve to amplify action; it’s an elegy to our Armed Forces.
Yes, Saving Private Ryan was (and is) a powerful, gut-wrenching experience unlike any other war movie we’d ever seen before. But more importantly, it was the final seal on a necessary, long-overdue corrective.
It brought a healing that our nation so desperately needed. Through it, there came a newfound respect for our soldiers and veterans. It was one they desperately needed, too.
- Spielberg didn’t exactly decide to cast Hanks. By coincidence (or Providence?), both Spielberg and Hanks just happened to be reading Robert Rodat‘s script at the same time as it was making its rounds in Hollywood. When they both learned that the other was reading it — and that they each shared an equal passion for it — they decided to make the film together. Prior to that, Spielberg was debating between casting Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford for the lead role of Capt. John Miller. (How’s that for a big “What if?” in Hollywood history?)
- This would be first of now five feature-film collaborations between Spielberg and Hanks. They also produced the HBO miniseries Band Of Brothers.
- Spielberg hired a then-unknown Matt Damon in the pivotal role of Private Ryan. He did so because of the strong recommendation that came from his close friend Robin Williams. At the time, Williams was in the middle of shooting Good Will Hunting with Damon.
- The only film that Spielberg never made pre-production storyboards for was Schindler’s List. Second to that, Spielberg didn’t make or follow any storyboards for the Normandy invasion. Instead, like with Schindler’s List, he chose to shoot the opening battle on gut instinct. Spielberg and his crew spent an entire month filming that one sequence, at a cost of $12 million.
- There was a risk that, due to the film’s extreme violence, the film could’ve received an NC-17 rating. If it had, Spielberg said that he would not have made any cuts and released it with that rating.
- Saving Private Ryan notched two big firsts for DreamWorks studios: their first film to pass the $100 million mark at the domestic box office, and the first to be nominated for Best Picture.
- In the decades following the Vietnam War, American culture was still largely conflicted and often disrespectful towards soldiers and veterans. Saving Private Ryan helps to change and heal that and, in his Best Director acceptance speech, Spielberg thanked his dad for helping him to see that there’s honor in respecting the past.
- In 1993, Harrison Ford presented the Best Picture Oscar for Schindler’s List to his close friend and Indy-collaborator Steven Spielberg. In 1998, Ford once again announced and presented the Best Picture prize…but this time it went to someone besides Spielberg. In one of the bigger upsets in Oscar history, Shakespeare In Love won the Academy’s top prize over Ryan. Plus, in another ironic connection, Shakespeare was written by Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun screenwriter Tom Stoppard.