“You wanna explain the math of this to me? I mean, where’s the sense of risking’ the lives of the eight of us to save one guy.”
“Maybe saving Private Ryan is the one decent thing we did in this g-d awful shitty mess.”
One of the memorable movie-watching experiences of my life was watching “Saving Private Ryan” with my late grandpa, Loren. I must have been home from college in late 1998 and was running my grandfather to a hospital in Tacoma for cancer treatment while both of my parents worked. After we got back to my house in Kent, WA, I asked him if he had seen “Saving Private Ryan” and he had not. Grandpa was not one for violent films (which he called “shoot em up bang bangs”) so I prepared him for the content of Spielberg’s war epic beforehand. He said that he wanted to watch it with me. Grandpa Loren was not on Normandy Beach during the harrowing invasion but he was in the Navy in the Pacific during the Second Great War.
During the showing in my family’s living room, I don’t remember him talking much at all. Afterward, he mentioned that he knew some guys who had been a part of the invasion force but didn’t say much more. I knew that I did not want to ask.
Therein lies the power of this film. In a divided age where generations bicker with each other online, Spielberg’s graphic and epic war picture connected generations. We all have to acknowledge that no movie, let alone a fictional one, could ever come close to portraying the experience of being in real life war. However, the strength of this movie was making an attempt to bridge the experiences of the Greatest Generation during the world conflict with their children and grandchildren.
Revisiting “Saving Private Ryan” now, which is at least the fourth time I have seen the movie, I’m still struck by what a towering achievement Spielberg has made. This is one of the great American war pictures ever made.
The brilliance of Spielberg’s execution of this movie is not only in the technical aspects where the audience is taken as close to the hellish experience of combat that can be done with a fictional narrative but the story and careful balancing act of the thematic material.
On the one hand, Spielberg highlights the sacrifice of the brave American soldiers who stormed Normandy Beach and fought against the forces of a genocidal dictator. On the other hand, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is a not-so-sly anti-war film. Guys have their limbs blown off, their bowels hanging out, young soldiers scream that they don’t want to die while others call for their mothers. The consequences of war are the extinguished lives of those characters. A generation of courageous servicemen who will never grow old or experience many of the rites of passages that come with life that a lot of the rest of us will.
Tom Hanks, always solid, plays Captain Miller who boldly leads his men through D-Day and then behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan (an early in his career Matt Damon). A betting pool exists among the men as to what Captain Miller does for his career back at home. There are moments where Captain Miller moves out of sight of his men and weeps while glancing over his shoulder to make sure he is not seen, his right hand shaking uncontrollably. None of the men in this film are comic book characters. They are human beings facing unimaginable circumstances.
Other than his two dinosaur movies, Spielberg had quite the historical drama run in the 1990s. “Schindler’s List” focused on the value of human beings as Oskar Schindler wept in the closing moments imagining he could have saved one more life with a golden Nazi pin he had. “Amistad” was about the dignity of lives that were oppressed under cruel chattel slavery. “Saving Private Ryan” focuses on the worth of one man whose three brothers had died at war and the attempt by brave servicemen to bring him back home to his family. Through these three films in the 1990s, Spielberg puts the sacred worth of human life in a foremost spot. All of these films highlight in different ways what we as Christians believe regarding human beings bearing the image of God and therefore, being sacred and loved.
The choice to direct “Amistad” and then to take on “Saving Private Ryan” is a fascinating one by Spielberg as well. Slavery is rightfully called America’s great original sin-kidnapping other people from their homes and forcing them into servitude that featured beatings, torture and murder. This was a dark chapter in the history of America and one we are still grappling with. After chronicling the story of the famous slave ship, Spielberg took on what was perhaps one of America’s heroic moments: the beach landing on June 6, 1944 as the Allied forces sacrificed to take on a genocidal tyrant. America’s darkest moments juxtaposed with one of its finest showing the messy and complex truths that make up the history of our nation.
Throughout the journey of the soldiers behind enemy lines as they look for Ryan, a viewer will note many smaller parts played by now famous actors. Look for Vin Diesel as one of the soldiers looking for Ryan. Paul Giamatti shows up as does a younger Bryan Cranston.
“Saving Private Ryan” is the definition of an unforgettable film with many harrowing moments as well as ones honoring the greatest generation who served in the second Great War. I have to believe that Spielberg’s heart in crafting this movie was not just honoring those who had fallen as long as those who served (as vitally important as that is), he also wanted us to take heart to the words of American author Herman Wouk, “The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance.”
Lester Lauding Level: 5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):
Schindler’s List (Review here)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Review here)
Jaws (Review here)
Saving Private Ryan
Jurassic Park (Review here)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Review here)
Empire of the Sun (Review here)
Amistad (Review here)
The Color Purple (Review here)
Duel (Review here)
The Post (Review here)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Review here)
Hook (Review here)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Review here)
The Sugarland Express (Review here)
Always (Review here)
1941 (Review here)