The tour de force twenty-minute opening – the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach – is shot is blistering, visceral detail and changed the war movie genre forever. The bleached colours, juddering camera-work and shattering sound have been imitated in virtually every war movie across the world ever since.
Gung-ho, war-movie actioners were consigned to cinema’s recycling bin. When Stallone’s ageing Rambo emerged in 2008, it still wore Saving Private Ryan’s colours, sounds and unflinching violence. Korea’s Brotherhood and China’s Assembly are both straitjacketed by Spielberg’s vision.
Nothing in Spielberg’s work – or in war movie history - could have prepared us, back in 1998, for the nerve-shredding, wide-awake moment when Tom Hanks’ landing craft drops its doors – and the occupants are brutally mown down. The ensuing barrage as Hanks’ men struggle up the beach in the face of withering gunfire is a both a masterpiece of world cinema and a hugely fitting testament to the men who died in the conflict.
Saving Private Ryan follows Tom Hanks’ reluctant team of soldiers, tasked with finding the titular Ryan, whose brothers have all died in the war. Fearing the fall-out in public morale if all the brothers are killed, the authorities charge Hanks with retrieving Ryan from the front line. But with dissent in his ranks, Germans everywhere and Ryan reluctant to leave, it’s a fateful mission.
Hanks is excellent, so too the underrated Tom Sizemore and the then unknown, pre-Bourne Matt Damon is disarmingly good as the ordinary Joe. But it’s the films set-pieces and moments of screw-tight tension that stay in the mind. True, the film cannot live up to its astonishing opening. And Spielberg can’t resist the cinematic tricks he honed in Duel, Jaws and Jurassic Park.
Even so, the climactic street-fight – with tanks instead of dinosaurs and great whites – pushes the war genre even further: an instance of cowardice leads to a sickening hand-to-hand fight culminating in one of cinema’s most chilling scenes. And while the ending is exciting in a way the beginning is not, every death is felt and mourned.
Framed – like Schindler's List – by a maudlin, and wholly unnecessary present-day cemetery scene, Saving Private Ryan is stained by Spielberg’s over-indulgent sentimentality. But what remains is a masterpiece which proved beyond doubt Spielberg’s real affinity with suffering and his capacity for hope.