'Saving Private Ryan': THR's 1998 Review

Saving Private Ryan - H 2015
The visual masterwork finds Spielberg atop his craft.

On July 24, 1998, Steven Spielberg brought Saving Private Ryan to theaters, where the film would become a summer hit and go on to win five Oscars. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

War is hell. While Gen. Sherman may have said it first, Steven Spielberg makes one of the most convincing cases yet in the uncompromisingly powerful Saving Private Ryan

A harrowing World War II epic about the struggle to uphold decency in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, the visual masterwork finds Spielberg atop his craft, weaving heart-pounding action and gut-wrenching emotion — often during the same sequence — that will leave viewers silently shaken. Unfortunately, Robert Rodat's original script doesn't always keep pace, too often settling for generic conventions that prevent Spielberg from matching the personal best that was Schindler's List

Still, there are moments that come awfully close to perfection. While the pull-no-punches graphic violence that resulted in an R rating may limit initial audience potential, the Spielberg-Tom Hanks combination makes for a potent draw. Traditional wisdom may have favored a Christmas release, but Saving Private Ryan is certain to make the Oscar front line. 

After a brief framing scene at a modern WWII memorial site, Spielberg plunges viewers smack in the middle of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach (with the Irish coastline effectively doubling for Normandy), and it's a baptism by hellfire. Shot newsreel-style with hand-held cameras and staccato cutting capturing the chaotic confusion of the ill-fated mission, it's a horrific sequence that, as seen through the eyes of key audience identifier Capt. John Miller (Hanks), takes on an almost surreal quality — a blood-soaked freak show of death and dismemberment. 

Meanwhile, back home, as a pool of secretaries busily types letters to be dispatched to families of those killed in the line of duty, it's discovered that three of the war dead were brothers who perished within days of each other. The fourth sibling, Pvt. James Ryan, is missing in action, and the enigmatic but by-the-book Miller has been ordered to take his men behind enemy lines to return him alive. 

Accompanying Miller on the unorthodox mission is a squad of loyal but disappointingly monochromatic characters. There's the always-at-the-ready sergeant (Tom Sizemore), the wisecracking New Yorker (Edward Burns), the tough but tender Italian (Vin Diesel), the Jewish kid with an agenda (Adam Goldberg), the sympathetic medic (Giovanni Ribisi), the Bible-quoting sharp-shooter (Barry Pepper) and the freshly recruited, wet-behind-the-ears interpreter (Jeremy Davis), who has barely held a gun, let alone fired one. 

As actors, all have the right stuff, but Rodat (who co-wrote Fly Away Home), seems content with a Greek chorus full of archetypes rather than something more vividly original, which his able players could have really sunk their teeth into. 

Even Hanks, displaying a winning James Stewart fragility certain to secure him an Oscar nomination, could have used a couple more layers in the character complexity department. Late arrival Matt Damon, as the elusive Pvt. Ryan, does strong work in a much more limited capacity. 

But if words occasionally fail the picture, the images speak indelible volumes. Working with a team of ace technicians — including director of photography Janusz Kaminski (an Academy Award winner for Schindler's List), editor Michael Kahn (another Schindler Oscar winner), production designer Tom Sanders, special effects supervisor Neil Corbould and sound designer Gary Rydstrom — Spielberg does some truly amazing work. 

The unforgettable D-Day scene aside, there's a tension-riddled closing sequence in which Miller and his surviving outfit lie in wait for advancing German troops in the middle of a bombed-out French town. The distant, menacing sound of an approaching tank echoes that of the first rampaging dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to chilling effect. 

Respectfully underscoring events is John Williams' looming score, which only occasionally overplays its patriotic hand. For the most part, it allows the film's eloquent, nonjudgmental message to be heard without unnecessary encumbrance — that the true enemy in war is war itself, an insatiable monster that exacts a devastating human price no matter how noble its purpose. — Michael Rechtshaffen, originally published on July 20, 1998. 

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