So, yeah. I finally watched Saving Private Ryan.
I can only watch about one war movie a year. I like them for their historical content, but they depress me. As they should–I mean, war is depressing. If a war movie doesn’t leave you thinking, “Man, war sucks,” then it hasn’t really done its job.
Saving Private Ryan does its job well. For anybody out there who doesn’t know the story (c’mon, there must a few), it’s about a squad of American soldiers in World War II, led by Tom Hanks, who make it through the invasion of Normandy only to be tasked with a dangerous mission to find one private who’s gone missing behind enemy lines. Ryan’s three brothers have all been killed in battle, and for PR reasons, the army wants to make sure at least one member of his family makes it home alive–even if a few more men have to die in the process.
A big part of what makes this movie so famous is the opening sequence, which shows D-Day in all its bloody, awful glory. As far as my knowledge goes, it’s quite historically accurate for Hollywood, but more importantly, it’s filmed so that it feels real. Some of the shots are taken from the protagonist’s point of view, and all of them have a gritty, news footage-style look that makes the viewers feel like we’re right there on Omaha Beach with the soldiers (and their severed limbs). Shaky cam and slow motion are usually my biggest pet peeves in action scenes, but this movie uses both to devastating effect. It’s truly a masterpiece of filmmaking. So…thanks for burning those images into my brain, Spielberg.
But that scene isn’t even really an important part of the story. It’s just there to get the plot going. Afterwards, we’re introduced to a gang of battle-hardened misfits (and one very un-battle-hardened misfit) who have to deal with the ridiculousness of their mission: to risk their lives searching through Nazi-infested territory just so one guy can go home early. Naturally, there’s a lot of resentment. But as their search goes on, some of the soldiers start to view the mission as redemptive, a way to make something good–even a small thing–out of their horrible war experiences.
I think it’s okay to include spoilers in this review, since the movie’s been around a long time, and it’s famous enough that even if you haven’t seen it, you probably know how it ends. Having said that, if you don’t know how this movie ends and would like it to be a surprise, you might want to stop reading…..now.
Yes, it’s very sad that most of Tom Hanks’ crew dies at the end, although I’ve almost come to expect that sort of thing in war movies. But the person I felt most sorry for at the end was Private Ryan himself. It’s one thing to watch a bunch of good men give their lives for you (while the slightly more cowardly one gets to live), but then Captain Miller has to top it off by telling Ryan to “earn this.” I can’t imagine living with that kind of guilt trip hanging over me. How could anyone ever “earn” a sacrifice like that? It’s clear at the end of the movie that Ryan doesn’t feel he has–even though his large, loving and respectful family seems to speak well of his character. Even at the end of his life, he’s still wondering if he’s a good enough man to justify his survival. Poor guy.
But in a way, the ending was sort of fitting, because by then I was starting to see this movie as a sort of allegory for World War II as a whole. Private Ryan is us–the American people (and, by extension, any other countries that would have been Nazi-fied if the Allies hadn’t won, but this movie’s focus is on the U.S.). Thousands upon thousands of soldiers died to secure our freedom, and what have we done with it in the decades since? Have we “earned it”? Have we made the world a better place?
Well, we’re nearing the end of a horrible, horrible election year, so right now the easy answer seems to be, “Nope!” But on a deeper level, that question kind of misses the point. There is no way to “earn” someone else’s sacrifice. That’s the whole point of a sacrifice–it’s voluntary, it’s undeserved, and it’s not fair. Life and freedom, however we received them, are gifts. Not debts to be repaid, but opportunities to pass on a little more light to the world. Private Ryan may not have cured cancer or invented a better light bulb, but by the glimpse we see of him at the end, it looks like he made a few people happy. And that’s not nothing.
Anywho, I find Saving Private Ryan far less depressing if I discount Miller’s last words. Even with all the bad that’s gone on in the world since the ’40s, and continues to go on, there are good people out there who might not be around today if it weren’t for guys like this movie’s soldier crew. If they could see that, I hope they’d think their mission was at least somewhat worthwhile.
To find out more about those real-life heroes, I’d highly recommend another Spielberg-influenced, documentary-style WWII project: HBO’s Band of Brothers series. It’s a lot like this movie, only with less fiction. I also highly recommend Saving Private Ryan, obviously–to those with strong stomachs and an interest in history, anyway. I think I chose my annual war movie wisely. But there is another year coming up in just a couple months, and I seem to be running out of Spielberg flicks. Any suggestions for my next war movie?