#253) Saving Private Ryan (1998)


#253) Saving Private Ryan (1998)

OR “Sorry About ‘Lost World’, Here’s a Classic”

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Robert Rodat

Class of 2014

The Plot: While visiting the Normandy American Cemetery, an old man (Harrison Young) flashes back to his service in World War II. Following the chaotic, monumental Normandy Invasion on Omaha Beach, the 2nd Rangers Battalion is given the special assignment to find the missing Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) and send him home after the death of his brothers. The Rangers are incredibly skeptical about the mission, but their captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) insists that their journey will be worth it if they can bring Ryan back to his family. Through Spielberg’s unique point-of-view, World War II is a real and terrifying experience where there are no “good guys” or “bad guys”, just average people trying to hold onto anything while in the Hell on Earth that is war.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Spielberg for “convey[ing] ultra-realism with harrowing intensity” and devotes about half of the paragraph to a Spielberg quote about not wanting to glamorize WWII.

But Does It Really?: This is another untouchable for me. Like its companion piece “Schindler’s List”, there are a few historical qualms, but as a film “Saving Private Ryan” is an achievement of the highest order. Spielberg and his team have made a war movie that doesn’t look or sound like any other war movie. “Ryan” is one of the rare epic films that doesn’t feel bloated or too self-important; Spielberg keeps you in the moment with these men at all times. Hanks nails a role that would prove to be a pivotal turning point in his career, and the entire ensemble of up-and-coming talent would go on to deliver on the promises they make in these performances. “Saving Private Ryan” is my vote for the last truly great film of the 20th century, and a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.

Shout Outs: The German soldier that the squad captures references “Steamboat Willie” and is listed by that name in the credits. And technically the film has an “E.T.” reference thanks to the Amblin logo.

Everybody Gets One: Like most recent entries, “Saving Private Ryan” is the single NFR appearance for a lot of the cast, many of whom have gone on to bigger and better things. Among them: Paul Giamatti, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Nathan Fillion, and Bryan Cranston.

Wow That’s Dated: This film has occasional ‘90s CG throughout. Most of it blends in, but a few shots show their age.

Title Track: Tom Sizemore has the honor of saying that “saving Private Ryan” may be the good deed that gets them out of the war.

Seriously, Oscars?: The highest-grossing film of 1998, “Saving Private Ryan” scored 11 Oscar nominations and took home five: Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and a second Best Director trophy for Steven Spielberg. The film was all but guaranteed to win Best Picture; the Academy even had longtime Spielberg-collaborator Harrison Ford present the category. And then, this happened…

Other notes

  • This is the first, and so far only, DreamWorks picture to be inducted into the NFR. Fingers crossed for “Shrek”.
  • Any doubts that this is a Spielberg film are immediately eliminated when the old man looks meaningfully at something off-camera.
  • This whole post can just be me analyzing the D-Day invasion sequence, yes? Here’s why it works: it doesn’t look like any other battle in any other war film. Part of that is Janusz Kaminski’s effective use of hand-held cameras and degraded color, and part of that is Spielberg’s unflinching use of violence. Late ‘90s audiences were already desensitized to violence by the time “Ryan” came out, but Spielberg brings you back to the reality and sheer horror of this war.
  • A Lincoln quote; nice foreshadowing Spielberg.
  • This is the movie where Tom Hanks became everyone’s dad. Miller is the first role where he gets to play a father figure, and you see him easing into that persona.
  • Kudos to casting director Denise Chamian. Practically every bit player in this movie has been successful. Even Matt Damon was an unknown when he was cast!
  • This is what I call a “Volume Up, Volume Down” movie: very quiet dialogue scenes, followed by very loud action scenes. My remote and I are inseparable during films like these.
  • Yep, that’s Ted Danson during that brief post-“Cheers” but pre-“Becker” period of his career. Way to go, Sam!
  • My favorite moment in the movie is when Mellish taunts the captured German soldiers with his Star of David. “Juden…Juden…Juuuuuuden.” The film has only a few light moments, but they’re all just the right amount.
  • Among the many things I appreciated about Kaminski’s cinematography is how much of the film is comprised of longer takes. They help keep you in the moment, whereas a lesser filmmaker would use quick cuts to convey wartime action.
  • For someone who’s been fighting in the trenches, Damon has the whitest teeth.
  • Why do we still not have an Oscar for stunt coordination? Someone should have won something for the stunts in this movie.
  • “Earn this.” And I’m crying.
  • An interesting piece of trivia: “Saving Private Ryan” was one of the last movies to be released on laserdisc. What a time to be alive.


  • “Saving Private Ryan” is the first of five (and counting) collaborations between Spielberg and Tom Hanks. My personal favorite is “Catch Me If You Can”.
  • Spielberg and Hanks have also co-produced two TV projects about WWII: “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”.
  • “Saving Private Ryan” not only revived public interest in WWII, but also inspired several video games set during the war. See “Medal of Honor” and “Call of Duty” to name just a few.
  • Quentin Tarantino was inspired by “Ryan” to make his own WWII movie: “Inglorious Basterds”. Well, he got the violent part down.
  • Many parodies over the years, most memorably the “Imaginationland” episodes of “South Park” [Footage Not Available].
  • Hanks would appear in the film’s drastic departure of a sequel: 2013’s “Saving Mr. Banks”.
  • “Hey, is that Hitler over there?”

Listen To This: One of the most sobering listening experiences in the National Recording Registry is journalist George Hicks’ recording of the D-Day Invasion. Broadcast the evening of June 6th 1944, this was the first account of the landing to be heard by the American public.

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