Tom Hanks' Saving Private Ryan Performance Was Centered Around One Emotion

Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" is a seminal war film with an ensemble cast led by the incomparable Tom Hanks, who delivered a harrowing performance as Captain John H. Miller. The actor was nominated for an Academy Award for his leading role, which had Hanks portray an anxious yet determined leader in the midst of a brutal journey to save, you guessed it, Private Ryan. From the storm of Normandy Beach to his final moments as a captain, Hanks embodied the layered character without any intention to hide his faults.

There is no doubt that Captain Miller is regarded as a great leader of his troops in "Saving Private Ryan." The soldier perseveres against all odds and leads his men to victory, or as close as you can get to it. But that does not negate the fact he is just as scared as anyone else at war would be. In fact, Hanks latched onto Captain Miller's insecurities as soon as the actor read the script.

Understanding his fear was key

Before "Saving Private Ryan," it was hard to imagine the often mild-mannered actor as a tough, bonafide leader to a group of soldiers in World War II. Hanks revealed to Oprah that he questioned why exactly anyone would cast him in that role:

"But I still have moments when I think, 'They want me to play this role? They want me to be Captain John Miller [in 'Saving Private Ryan']?' Never in my wildest scenarios would I have thought I would be able to have enough of somebody's confidence to do such a thing."

However, the character is more than just a hollow shell of false confidence. In the interview, Hanks spoke about relating to Captain Miller through his innate fear:

"The first time I read about Captain John Miller, here's what I got: He's scared. And he's afraid in the same way that I would be in his circumstances. His fear is the reason for everything he does. And all the questions that are answered in the movie come back to that core thing."

"Saving Private Ryan" is not a film about the false bravado often associated with war and its leaders. It's a devastating picture that looks at all of its players with multiple lenses to fully encapsulate the tragedy behind the atrocities of war. Hanks' performance as Captain Miller is a big part of that, as the character comes into "Saving Private Ryan" having already experienced combat.

A trembling soul

Before storming Omaha Beach, Captain Miller was previously involved in World War II having served as a U.S. soldier since 1942, two years before D-Day. The film follows the fictional figure, no stranger to the darkness of war, as he attempts to lead his men in France. However, despite appearing to be a confident and level-headed leader of his group, Captain Miller is still emotionally and mentally affected by what he's witnessed. Throughout the film, Hanks finds the balancing act of exuding bravery and vulnerability. 

There is one scene in particular that exemplifies just how scared the Captain truly was. At a certain point, Miller's hands trembled as he pulls out a map to guide his troops. His anxiety started to seep through his efforts to conceal his emotions. His soldiers took notice and stared intently at Miller, who himself recognized that everyone now knew how he truly felt. I'd argue that by doing this, Spielberg leaned heavily into the idea that Miller likely has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The horrors of war changed Miller on a deep emotional level, one Hanks has to occasionally portray as the unwavering leader. 

Outside of Hanks' performance, "Saving Private Ryan" is the benchmark for depicting the realities of war on the big screen for more reasons than one.