Tom Hanks has long been America’s dad. It’s difficult to pin down when he transformed from a lovable scamp in over his head in movies like Splash and Turner & Hooch into the acting equivalent of a meaningful day trout-fishing with your father, but it was definitely some time in the late 1990s. He had made a productive detour into the fields of romantic comedy with Meg Ryan and Nora Ephron, but by 1998, Hanks was itching to do the thing all American fathers inevitably do: get really into World War II. In Tom Hanks’ case, that meant teaming up with director Steven Spielberg for the first of (so far) five collaborations and making the war epic Saving Private Ryan. Since its release as a summer blockbuster and prime Oscar bait, Saving Private Ryan has gone on to be both praised and condemned for its portrayal of World War II. And as of today, April 1st, 2022, it is now streaming on Netflix USA and you can judge for yourself.
Saving Private Ryan stars Tom Hanks as part of a large and talented ensemble, but in many ways, Hanks is not the “star” of the movie. With respect to the talents of Hanks, World War II is the true protagonist of Spielberg’s movie. Somewhat surprisingly, Saving Private Ryan is an entirely fictional story set during Operation Overlord, the code name for the Allied troops’ invasion of Normandy Beach in June of 1944. Screenwriter Robert Rodat was inspired by the case of the Niland brothers, four siblings who fought in WWII; two were killed in action and for a time, it was thought that three were dead. The idea of one surviving brother intrigued Rodat, who came up with the premise of a squad of U.S. Army Rangers tasked by military brass to retrieve a soldier from behind enemy lines to ensure a family does not lose all their children.
Steven Spielberg, who has a lifelong fascination with WWII that had previously manifested in various formers in Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun, and the Indiana Jones movies, came on board, making Saving Private Ryan one of the first released from his newly minted Dreamworks Pictures. Harrison Ford was initially considered for the part of the commander of the detachment of soldiers searching for the titular private Ryan, as was the in-retrospect disastrous Mel Gibson. Tom Hanks was eventually selected, and his squad was cast with an all-star group of actors including Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, and Jeremy Davies. Spielberg’s idea was initially to cast an unknown actor in the role of Private James Ryan; at the time of his casting, Matt Damon was not famous, but by the time of release, Good Will Hunting had made him both a leading man and an Oscar winner.
Saving Private Ryan is frequently held up as a gold standard of historical accuracy in films, with the depiction of the Omaha Beach assault using actual WWII armaments and vehicles. Spielberg has admitted to fictionalizing some specific aspects of the events for the sake of emphasizing the emotional and physical horror of war; reportedly, incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder-related counseling rose sharply among WWII veterans after the release of the film. Spielberg had Tom Hanks and the various actors portraying his squad trained by military personnel, to heighten both the accuracy of their acting and in his words that he “wanted them to respect what it was like to be a soldier.” In a Stanley Kubrick-like move, Matt Damon was trained separately so as to create a sense of alienation and resentment from the other actors.
The film was released at the beginning of the summer blockbuster season, rather than the October or November release dates typically assigned to Oscar-hopeful movies. As a result, Saving Private Ryan was a massive box office hit despite its bleakness and violence, eventually grossing nearly $500 million. It also became a critical hit, and won Spielberg his second Academy Award for Best Director (though it controversially lost Best Picture to the fizzy sweetness of Shakespeare in Love). Tom Hanks was nominated for Best Actor, but did not win; that would have made it his Oscar of the decade. In the years since the release of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ film has been both lauded for its realistic portrayal of the violent human consequences of war and criticized for being perceived as promoting the notion of American exceptionalism. But now that it’s streaming on Netflix, you can decide for yourself.