1998’s war epic, Saving Private Ryan, makes our list at #71. 1998 was not the greatest year for cinema in general, which makes it kind of laughable that Saving Private Ryan lost out in the Oscar race to the deeply mediocre film, Shakespeare in Love. It wasn’t the first or last time that the academy got it wrong, but surely it was one of the worst misses.
The film opens with a scene of a man crying at a graveyard (we later learn that this is an older Private Ryan) then quickly pivots to a graphic depiction of the storming of Normandy as troops land on Omaha Beach, taking heavy casualties before they eventually take out German gunners. The scene is over 20 minutes long and has to be among the longest battle scenes ever made in a war movie. We then learn of the Ryan family, a family of 4 brothers, 3 of whom were killed in the Normandy invasion. General Marshall decides that the 4th brother must be found and brought home so that his mother doesn’t lose all 4 boys. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is asked to assemble a small crew to find Ryan. The rest of the film follows their quest to find him and the many battles that they get in along the way. In the end, Ryan (Matt Damon) is found almost by pure chance on their journey. Before they take him back, they are faced with an attack from German tanks and in the ensuing battle, almost the entire squad is killed, including Captain Miller, whose final words to Ryan are “earn it” – in other words, live a life worthy of the sacrifice that has been made to find him. We flash forward back to the grave scene with Ryan asking his wife if he is a good man.
The film is remarkable for a number of reasons. The depictions of war are the best that I have ever seen – intense, graphic and fully engrossing. Tom Hanks, as expected, turns in a phenomenal performance and develops a rich and interesting character, a small town school teacher turned into tough army Captain. The supporting cast is incredible, Ed Burns is fantastic as the angry and insubordinate Private Reiben and Vin Diesel is well-cast in the one kind of role that he plays well, flippant badass Private Caparzo. There are also great performances by Paul Giamatti and Tom Sizemore and a brief, but emotionally powerful delivery by Damon as Ryan.
The film has some flaws too – some of the technical details of the battle scenes are spot on, but the final battle scene is a bit non-sensical and there are some other minor technical errors in the Omaha Beach scene and some overall historical and geographical inaccuracies.
While the battle scenes are epic, what really makes the film is its subtler and softer moments, such as Miller revealing his home life or Ryan talking about his final time together with his brothers. The characters in the film are deeply human and you see in full view how raw human emotions and errors translate into acts of brutality in war and about the constant moral gray space that exists in human combat. I wish the film had contained a little more reckoning with the acts soldiers committed in the field of combat – the trauma of killing other humans, especially from men plucked out of lives that were so different, is a subject worth a deeper exploration. There were also other issues that the film largely sidesteps, such as the segregation of the military during World War 2 – we never see a black solider, though there certainly were many at Normandy. This is clearly a tribute film to the men who served in the war, but tributes should contain full histories.
All-in-all, this is a hugely influential film that is both riveting and thought-provoking to watch. What else could you really ask for in a movie?
Production Quality 10/10
Rewatch Value 9/10
Total Score: 37/40