Remember when America hated Nazis? It was a magical time.
In light of the horrible insurrection that occurred this week in Washington, DC, with the outgoing president inciting his fans to attack the Capitol while Congress was meeting the certify the election of his replacement, a review of Saving Private Ryan seems appropriate.
I’ve seen this movie, or at least parts of it, dozens of times. As I’ve grown older and begin to turn more and more into my father, I always try to rewatch it on Memorial Day. Or on D-Day. Or Veterans Day. Or just because. In fact, it was one of the few movies that I actually maintain a physical copy of, if only to make it easier to watch whenever and not at the whim of the various streaming services and how stuff cycles between being available and not.
From the opening scene – after the cemetery part where the old man finds a grave (more on him later) – you are thrown into the action. The camera first finds the shaking hand of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) as he prepares to lead his group of Rangers to Omaha Beach as part of the Normandy Beach landing on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The gates on the boats drop, and you instantly see why he wanted them to clear the “murder hole.” Chaos erupts, and everyone is pinned to the beach. This has to be one of the best shot sequences in war movie history.
The sea runs red with blood. Captain Miller pauses to amongst the chaos. Dumping the bloody water from his helmet, he comes back to reality with the realization that he needs to get himself and his men off the beach. Removing a machine gun nests, helps, and our valiant heroes open the beach for the rest of the invasion force.
But before then, we see the body of a soldier named Ryan.
Cut to the casualty notification office, where a secretary realizes that the same mother has three letters inbound regarding three of her sons, two killed on D-Day and one in the Pacific. The Ryans. The youngest Ryan brother – the “Private Ryan” in the title – is also participating in the war, as a member of the 101st Airborne that jumped behind Normandy Beach – watch Band of Brothers for that exciting story (though the Ryans are not a real people).
General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) decides to send a rescue mission after the fourth Ryan brother, quoting a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to a Mrs. Bixby during the Civil War. If he’s alive, they are going to get him home to his mother.
As Captain Miller and his squad search for Private Ryan, they find other elements of the US military all over France, and members of the squad begin to question the efficacy of sending them to search for the proverbial needle in a haystack, especially as members begin to die. Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is first, struck down by a sniper when the squad stops and believes they’ve found Private Ryan.
It’s the quiet moments where this movie really shines. The hushed conversations in the church. Walking a night with the lights of battle in the distance. Sorting through dog tags looking trying to confirm if Ryan has been KIA. Patrolling through the French countryside on the way to Ramelle.
T-4 Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) is the next to die, shot while assaulting a machine gun placement found on the way to Ramelle. And when Captain Miller lets a German POW that was responsible for his death walk away, it nearly causes a mutiny. But they persist (after burying the dead), and finally locate Private Ryan (Matt Damon), defending a bridge with a ragtag group of soldiers.
Ryan doesn’t want to leave his unit, so Captain Miller and his crew decide to help defend the bridge from a looming German attack. They prepare the remains of the village for attack, ready to have their last stand at their “Alamo.” Some more quiet moments as the men wait for the inevitable attack.
The Germans attack. Nearly all of the American defenders die, and as Captain Miller stares down a tank with a 9mm handgun, the Army Air Force arrives to save them. Captain Miller is nonetheless gravely wounded, but Private Ryan is safe. As he dies, he whispers in Ryan’s ear, telling him “earn this.” Private Ryan returns home to his mother.
Cut back to that old man at the Normandy cemetery. You thought it was Captain Miller, didn’t you? Turns out its an elderly Private Ryan, telling the good captain that he has indeed earned it.
This movie has always been around my top 10 movies. In two previous times on this blog where I’ve ranked movies, it was there. Heading into this rewatch, it was ranked #12 on my FlickChart, not far from where it always seems to settle. Seems that a couple of movies since that last ranking in 2011 – Lincoln and Hamilton – served to bump it down a bit.
As I’ve been doing so far in this series, I re-ranked it, and it moved up. Honestly, at this point, my top 15 is kind of “tied for second behind Dogma” anyway, so we’re really just splitting hairs. Nevertheless, one of the best war movies ever made has crept back into my top 10, settling at #9 between The Shawshank Redemption and Return of the Jedi.
It’s still fairly unbelievable that Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture at the Oscars instead of this movie. Steven Spielberg was rewarded as Best Director, and it won some technical awards – Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing – winning a total of five of its 11 nominations.
Tom Hanks could have won Best Actor (he lost to Roberto Benigni in a movie no one has seen), but it was probably a little of Hanks’ fatigue within the Academy after his previous wins for Philadelphia (1994) and Forrest Gump (1995). The only better choice than Benigni was probably Edward Norton in American History X, one of my favorite performances of all time.
The other nominations were for Best Original Screenplay (Shakespeare in Love), Best Original Dramatic Score (Life is Beautiful), Best Art Direction (Shakespeare in Love), and Best Makeup (Elizabeth). I’d argue that the score was probably better, but John Williams has enough awards. Best Makeup should have really been a consideration as well, with solid depictions of war wounds storming the beach and elsewhere.
One of my favorite movies, and if you haven’t seen it, you really should watch it.
Until next time…