Steven Spielberg directed this powerful, realistic re-creation of WWII's D-day invasion and the immediate aftermath. The story opens with a prologue in which a veteran brings his family to the American cemetery at Normandy, and a flashback then joins Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) and GIs in a landing craft making the June 6, 1944, approach to Omaha Beach to face devastating German artillery fire. This mass slaughter of American soldiers is depicted in a compelling, unforgettable 24-minute sequence. Miller's men slowly move forward to finally take a concrete pillbox. On the beach littered with bodies is one with the name "Ryan" stenciled on his backpack. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell), learning that three Ryan brothers from the same family have all been killed in a single week, requests that the surviving brother, Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), be located and brought back to the United States. Capt. Miller gets the assignment, and he chooses a translator, Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davis), skilled in language but not in combat, to join his squad of right-hand man Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore), plus privates Mellish (Adam Goldberg), Medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), cynical Reiben (Edward Burns) from Brooklyn, Italian-American Caparzo (Vin Diesel), and religious Southerner Jackson (Barry Pepper), an ace sharpshooter who calls on the Lord while taking aim. Having previously experienced action in Italy and North Africa, the close-knit squad sets out through areas still thick with Nazis. After they lose one man in a skirmish at a bombed village, some in the group begin to question the logic of losing more lives to save a single soldier. The film's historical consultant is Stephen E. Ambrose, and the incident is based on a true occurrence in Ambrose's 1994 bestseller D-Day: June 6, 1944.
When Steven Spielberg was an adolescent, his first home movie was a backyard war film. When he toured Europe with Duel in his 20s, he saw old men crumble in front of headstones at Omaha Beach. That image became the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, his film of a mission following the D-day invasion that many have called the most realistic--and maybe the best--war film ever. With 1998 production standards, Spielberg has been able to create a stunning, unparalleled view of war as hell. We are at Omaha Beach as troops are slaughtered by Germans yet overcome the almost insurmountable odds. A stalwart Tom Hanks plays Captain Miller, a soldier's soldier, who takes a small band of troops behind enemy lines to retrieve a private whose three brothers have recently been killed in action. It's a public relations move for the Army, but it has historical precedent dating back to the Civil War. Some critics of the film have labeled the central characters stereotypes. If that is so, this movie gives stereotypes a good name: Tom Sizemore as the deft sergeant, Edward Burns as the hotheaded Private Reiben, Barry Pepper as the religious sniper, Adam Goldberg as the lone Jew, Vin Diesel as the oversize Private Caparzo, Giovanni Ribisi as the soulful medic, and Jeremy Davies, who as a meek corporal gives the film its most memorable performance. The movie is as heavy and realistic as Spielberg's Oscar-winning Schindler's List, but it's more kinetic. Spielberg and his ace technicians (the film won five Oscars: editing (Michael Kahn), cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), sound, sound effects, and directing) deliver battle sequences that wash over the eyes and hit the gut. The violence is extreme but never gratuitous. The final battle, a dizzying display of gusto, empathy, and chaos, leads to a profound repose. Saving Private Ryan touches us deeper than Schindler because it succinctly links the past with how we should feel today. It's the film Spielberg was destined to make. --Doug Thomas