Saving Private Ryan (1998): Spielberg’s Oscar Winning War Movie, Starring Tom Hanks

The great French director Francois Truffaut once said that ideally a movie should do two things: It should tell a poignant story in an interesting manner, and it should also contribute to the film medium itself. There’s no doubt that Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” has achieved these goals–and more. He has made a great film while revisiting a genre–war movie–that was all but dead, and in the process experimented with the basic foundations of film grammar.

Spielberg’s intent was to make a movie that doesn’t look or sound like any other war movie. As shot by Janusz Kaminsky’s piercing camera, the first 23 minutes of the film represent the most revelatory battle ever recorded onscreen, a breathtakingly graphic portrayal of the violence and chaos at Omaha Beach on D Day.

“Saving Private Ryan” epitomizes the paradox of all great filmmaking: It’s a thrilling movie about an unbearably painful subject. The movie is filled with riveting images and haunting scenes, some never depicted in film before. In the opening sequence, a soldier searches for his severed arm, picks it up and then bewildered wanders around. We are accustomed to quiet scenes in war movies, in which soldiers talk about the sweethearts they left behind while pulling a photo out of their wallet. In this movie, when Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is asked about his wife, defying movie cliches, he simply says, “I’ll rather keep it to myself.”

Unlike most war movies, Saving Private Ryan doesn’t suggest that American soldiers were fighting for patriotic causes. Refreshingly and courageously, it shows that in combat there’s only one ideology: Survival. Refusing to glorify war, “Saving Private Ryan” doesn’t shy away from depicting men’s fear of getting killed, their hesitancy of taking human life, even when it belongs to the enemy. Uplifting in its compassionate tale of human sacrifice, it also concerns the burden of memory, the inevitable weight of the past on the present.

I have no doubts that in years to come, when historians record the evolution of American cinema, “Saving Private Ryan” will assume its place in the pantheon of spectacular filmmaking.


Oscar nominations: 11

Picture, produced by Steven Spielberg, Ian Bryce, Mark Gordon, and Gary Levinsohn

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay (Original): Robert Rodat

Actor: Tom Hanks

Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski

Art direction-set decoration: Tom Sanders, Lisa Dean Kavanugh

Film Editing: Michael Kahn

Sound: Gary Rydstrom, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, Ronald Judkins

Sound Effects Editing: Gary Rydstrom, Richard Hymns

Original Score: John Williams

Makeup: Lois Burwell, Connor O’Sullivan, Daniel C. Striepke

Oscar awards: 5





Sound Effects Editing

Oscar Context

The most nominated film in 1998, “Shakespeare in Love” won 7 out of its 13 nominations. The film was the surprise Best Picture winner as Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” which was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 5, was expected to win the top award.

The five Best Picture nominees that year fell into two categories: Movies about royalty, “Shakespeare in Love” and “Elizabeth,” and WWII pictures, “Saving Private Ryan,” Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” and even Roberto Beningi Holocaust fable “Life Is Beautiful.” Italian actor Benigni undeservedly won the Best Actor Oscar.