Set in France in 1944 shortly after the Normandy invasion. The story concerns a squad of U.S. Army soldiers on a perilous assignment behind enemy lines. The mission: to risk their lives to save the life of one man, paratrooper James Ryan. Ryan is the last survivor of a family of four brothers, the rest of whom have been killed in action. The film was nominated for 11 the winner of several Acad emy Awards including Best Director.
Since its release in 1998, Steven Spielberg’s D-Day drama Saving Private Ryan has become hugely influential: everything, from the opening sequence of Gladiator (“Saving Marcus Aurelius”) to the marvellous 10-hour TV series Band of Brothers, has been made in its shadow. There have been many previous attempts to recreate the D-Day landings on screen (notably, the epic The Longest Day), but thanks to Spielberg’s freewheeling hand-held camerawork, Ryan was the first time an audience really felt like they were there, storming up Omaha Beach in the face of withering enemy fire.
After the indelible opening sequence, however, the film is not without problems. The story, though based on an American Civil War incident, feels like it was concocted simply to fuel Spielberg’s sentimental streak. In standard Hollywood fashion the Germans remain a faceless foe (with the exception of one charmless character who turns out to be both a coward and a turncoat); and the Tom Hanks-led platoon consists of far too many stereotypes: the doughty Sergeant; the thick-necked Private; the Southern man religious sniper; the cowardly Corporal. Matt Damon seems improbably clean-cut as the titular Private in need of rescue (though that may well be the point); and why do they all run straight up that hill towards an enemy machine gun post anyway? Some non-US critics have complained that Ryan portrays only the American D-Day experience, but it is an American film made and financed by Americans after all. Accepting both its relatively narrow remit and its lachrymose inclinations, Saving Private Ryan deserves its place in the pantheon of great war pictures.