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Featured Movie Reviews

Saving Private Ryan

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

After we visited the beaches and cemetery/memorials of Normandy last fall, we were anxious to revisit Steven Spielberg’s excellent 1998 war drama, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

No film before or since has equaled the intensity of the opening twenty minutes depicting the Allied forces attempting to secure a beachhead on June 6th, 1944. Spielberg’s camera weaves in and out of the soldiers as German forces mow them down in a relentless barrage of bullets.

You are immersed in the terror as the young men under Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) fight for every inch of sand. Spielberg also uses sound effectively, with bullets flying past your head and explosions causing temporary deafness on the soundtrack. It’s gory, graphic, and unyielding.

His cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Minority Report, Lincoln) used shakers and drills to create the visual vibrations of nearby explosions while reducing the color saturation throughout. Spielberg shot the landing over four days, using the actual locations to recreate history.

It’s one hell of an opening sequence.

Miller (Tom Hanks) is given orders amidst the chaos to track down Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) whose three brothers have all been killed in action. He is to find Ryan and get him back home.

As Miller and his squad move across the French countryside, screenwriter Robert Rodat (The Patriot) weaves a perfect mix of history, war film and personal drama.

The late Tom Sizemore has one of his best screen roles as Sergeant Horvath, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, and Giovanni Ribisi are all strong, weaving portrayals of the very different men under the command of Miller. Jeremy Davies is a standout as Corporal Upham, who arrives at Omaha Beach with a typewriter that’s quickly left behind.

All the actors except Damon were put through days of brutal training at the hands of the legendary Dale Dye. Damon was intentionally given a pass, so the soldiers would have natural resentment toward him. It comes through in their performances.

Hanks shines as Miller, a citizen thrust into his leadership role, unable to let his terror show on the surface. It’s a quiet performance in a film dominated by its loud, powerful action sequences.

I loved the framing scenes at the beginning and end of the film, with an elder Miller visiting the cemetery in Normandy. The bookends are emotionally powerful and ground Miller’s character. For us, retracing those steps in France when we visited the massive sea of white crosses was overwhelming. The sacrifice of the allied forces against the Nazi beach strongholds was only matched by their bravery.

Spielberg is at his best throughout, creating a film that educates, thrills, and terrifies.

John Williams composed a music score that soars in reflective moments but never interrupts the action scenes. At nearly three hours long, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is a Spielberg masterclass that hasn’t lost any of its power in the 25 years since its release. It gets an A+ as one of the best war films of all time.

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