‘Saving Private Ryan’ Turns 23: Why Captain Miller Was Tom Hanks’ Defining Role

by Matthew Wilson

For many, “Saving Private Ryan” is the definitive World War II film. Released on this day in 1998, the film explores the horrors of war. Whether it’s that harrowing D-Day recreation so realistically rendered that it triggered PTSD in vets. Or that emotionally charged final stand against a German tank (you know the one). The film may be an ensemble but it’s anchored by a career-best performance by Tom Hanks.

Tom Hanks imbues his character Captain John H. Miller with a weariness of war. There’s a hint that even if he makes it out of France, he’ll never truly leave the beaches of Normandy. Hanks plays Miller as a good man forced to do things that will haunt him. In another life, he would be a school teacher molding the minds of young students. But in World War II, Miller is now a leader making snap decisions that decide the lives of his unit amid the chaos of war.

“Saving Private Ryan” is bolstered by some pretty intense performances. There’s Giovanni Ribisi in a heartwrenching performance as the unit’s medic. Matt Damon, fresh off “Good Will Hunting,” is given the thankless job of carrying the film’s title character. As Private Ryan, he has to play a character worth the lives of all the men trying to bring him home.

But it’s Hank’s character and his valiant doomed mission, which you’ll think about long after the credits roll.

Tom Hanks’ Performance In ‘Saving Private Ryan’

So why is “Saving Private Ryan” the definitive Tom Hanks movie? Sure, some would say “Forrest Gump” is Hanks’ best. It’s certainly his most iconic role, instantly quotable in the pop culture sphere. Gump may be the flashier of the two roles. But Captain Miller is Hanks’ more gut-wrenching. He portrays Miller as an everyman, inhabiting the boots of the millions of soldiers who landed and died on D-Day.

While Forrest Gump entangled himself across some of the 20th century’s biggest events, Hanks’ Miller was just a man. He was swept up in a world conflict bigger than him and that ultimately didn’t care about him and his life. Gump may have been a country boy from Greenbow, Alabama. But Miller could have come from any town in America. Many soldiers like him did.

Tom Hanks gives a subdued performance, focused on the chaotic moments of survival. He really shines in those quiet scenes where he can reflect on all the marks the War has put on his soul. A slight hand tremble says more in a moment than a thousand words ever could.

Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” explored the realities and horrors of war. Unlike films before it, it didn’t glorify conflicts and war. Instead, Miller and his men found meaning by trying to protect their fellow soldiers beside them. As Miller says during a pivotal point, “Earn this. Earn this.”