Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks pair up -- ''Saving Private Ryan'' brings the duo success

There are certain rare historical occurrences like Halley’s comet that should be cherished when they swing by. The same is true in a celestial realm closer to home — namely, the galaxy of Hollywood. Think about it: How often do we get to see a generation’s greatest director and leading man team up? Every 20 years…if we’re lucky? In the ’40s and early ’50s, John Huston and Humphrey Bogart joined forces for The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen. In the ’70s and early ’80s, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro gave us Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. This year, in what we hope will be a far more frequent occurrence than Professor Halley’s fantasia, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks converged in Saving Private Ryan.

Both Spielberg, 52, and Hanks, 42, have topped this list before (Spielberg in ’93, Hanks in ’94). But their epic meditation on D-Day raised the bar. From the film’s frenzied, gut-wrenching opening on Omaha Beach, we knew this wouldn’t be our fathers’ WWII movie. Soldiers awaiting orders muttered Hail Marys and heaved over the sides of their Higgins boats; waves crashing on the Normandy shore became a horrifying red tide; and the very concept of fearlessness in fighting ”the Good War” was overshadowed by the existential meat grinder that was June 6, 1944. ”D-Day was the turning point of the 20th century. Those few minutes are like a microcosm of our century — the waist of the hourglass,” says Ryan producer Gary Levinsohn. ”Finding important stories to tell is hard, but finding the right way to tell them is even harder.” The talented tag team of Spielberg and Hanks made it look easy. The resulting film — about a war long ago filed away under ”Nostalgia” — went on to pull in a staggering $190 million at the box office.

If Schindler’s List was Spielberg’s rite of passage from starry-eyed man-child to a more serious, morality-driven filmmaker, then Ryan showed him making good on that promise. Like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone turning the Westerns of John Ford on their head — replacing the flawless hero with the morally blurry Everyman — Spielberg’s Ryan is a similarly revelatory feat of revisionism. The director not only strips away the jingoistic veneer of John Wayne’s Green Berets, but shows us a WWII that looked (and even seemed to smell) like hell.

And at the center of the century-defining tempest is Hanks’ Captain Miller. There’s a reason for the actor’s comparisons to Jimmy Stewart: Trading in believability rather than flash, Hanks excels at playing the supremely decent man overwhelmed by circumstance. And in Spielberg, our Stewart of the ’90s found his Hitchcock. He could have pulled off a cardboard hero in his sleep; but in Miller’s trembling hands and ashen grimace, his desperate confusion and concern for his men, we see a man at war not only with Germans but with his conscience — a rational officer trying to make sense of irrational surroundings.

These days, you can find Hanks returning to his aw-shucks romantic-comedy stomping grounds in You’ve Got Mail. But he and Spielberg will continue to grapple with WWII, in a 13-hour miniseries they will exec-produce for HBO (slated for late 2000). Still, it’s hard to imagine their small-screen venture will carry the emotional bang of Ryan. ”I was aware that I was involved in something that was much bigger than the sum of its parts, that Steven had dragged us all into something huge,” Hanks says six months later. ”But I didn’t really know what I’d been involved in until Steven showed it to me. And I was emotionally crippled by it. I sat in the car for 20 minutes afterwards. I couldn’t drive.” Join the club.

Saving Private Ryan
  • Movie
  • R
  • 170 minutes
  • Steven Spielberg