Saving Private Ryan (1998): War Movie that Doesn’t Look Like Any Other

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 27 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 begins with an intense 27-minute long recreation of the Omaha Beach landing. That scene sets the tone for the entire film.

“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.