Saving Private Ryan (1998)


This is an intense film, but I it starts out a little cheesy.  I had forgotten about the opening and closing scenes, in which an elderly man visits a military cemetery.  I don’t think it was necessary, and it immediately dates the film (with all the 90s clothing) which otherwise feels like it could have been released this week, in terms of visual and technical quality.

Once that ends, however, the film thrusts you into the action in a very famous Omaha Beach scene.  It’s bloody and fast-paced, and it puts you right there alongside the soldiers as they’re torn apart by bullets.  It’s unnerving to watch, and the puncture sounds of men as they’re hit is tough to stomach, so the scene worked very well.  Spielberg, at this time, seems to be getting very comfortable with making people uncomfortable.  It started with The Color Purple and there was a bit of it in Empire of the Sun.  Then he went all out with Schindler’s List and again with Amistad.

This film succeeds not necessarily because of or in spite of that discomfort, but it helps you identify with the characters regardless.  In order to identify with a character, you need to know where they’re coming from, what they’re up against and ideally empathize with them.  Well not ideally, you need to empathize with them.  Whenever I find a kindred spirit onscreen, it’s usually because they approach the world the way I might.  Other ways to see yourself in movie characters is to simply root for them.  Some film use voice over to force you to see the world they see it, and others might just have the character do something incredibly selfless or face the undeserving wrath of the blond-haired kid from The Karate Kid.

But Saving Private Ryan is amazing because you feel almost one with the ragtag group of soldiers despite not knowing much about them.  The reasons you root for them are probably, first, because you’re a kind person who would prefer that someone survive the war, and, second, you’re really just terrified of what will happen to them much like in a horror film.  So maybe it’s just that the story’s circumstances force you to be vigilant and, thus, to pay close attention.

Now that I think about it, in the Omaha Beach scene, we haven’t yet met most of the men who we will follow throughout the rest of the film.  We only follow Tom Hanks’ Captain John H. Miller.  I’m not even sure we know his character’s name until the end of the film, but we know Tom Hanks isn’t going to die in the first 20 minutes of the film.  We’re still vigilant, though, because almost everyone else around him is slaughtered so it feels like anyone and everyone will die on that beach.

The scene’s obvious purpose is to demonstrate the horrors of war.  It doesn’t much matter to the movie’s plot what happens on that beach, so long as Tom Hanks makes it out alive, and again, we know he will.  The real story is initiated by the death of an unseen soldier in that beach invasion.  We only see him once the fighting is over, and then the camera hovers over the body of someone with the last name Ryan, face down in the sand.  His death is one of three important deaths, alongside his two brothers.  When news of their deaths reach Washington, General George Marshall commands that immediate action be taken to pull the fourth Ryan brother out of combat so that his mother doesn’t have to bury all of her children.

So Captain Miller puts together a group of men to go into harm’s way searching for a “needle in a pile of needles.”  The plot is fairly simple, and it’s simplicity (as well as the 2 hr 49 min runtime) allows for a lot of conversation amongst the soldiers about life, death, the war, the lunacy of their mission and personal tidbits that will make us somehow more sad when they die.

The central question of the film is, I think, what is any of this for?  It could be expanded to a broader point made about the entire war and war in general, after all every war movie is anti-war movie on some level, but it’s at least relevant to the mission our group of heroes is on.

The soldiers question Captain Miller about what is the sense in risking all these lives for one guy.  They mutter to themselves, saying this James Francis Ryan better be a hell of a guy.  Miller’s explanation to all the bitterness is that it’s their mission, and if he completes this mission, maybe it’ll get him closer to home.  In a pretty strong monologue, Miller discusses the senseless violence in war, describing how every life he takes makes him feel further away from his wife and from home.  While these moments, the more you watch them, border on Oscar-bait sentimentality, they mostly work because we’ve witnessed everything Miller is talking about.  We know what he’s referring to, and we can assume that every other character has seen something similar in their time in the war.

When Miller says he’s lost 94 (I believe) soldiers under his command, we can visualize what that looks like, because we’ve seen many more than that die throughout the course of the film.

By the time the group finds Private Ryan, they have lost two men.  Both die in brutal, drawn out fashion, and every soldier appears shaken by the experience.  One of those soldiers is Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies), a cartographer who is on the mission because he speaks French and German.  Upham tells the other soldiers that he’s writing a book on brotherhood in the war, and he’s ridiculed.  That’s probably not something you tell your coworkers, and the response is expected.  Still, the ridicule and even more, their senses of humor are a product of the experience of the war.  They really are a tight knit group of men, drawn closer by the shared experience of flirting with death.  Also, taking the lives of others isn’t easy, so that experience as well probably makes them close.  In fact, it’s just that they can lean on each other, understanding what it’s all like and what they’re feeling.  It’s other people they can relate to.

Adding to that, the resentment they all hold towards Private Ryan is similarly a product of their brotherhood.  Ryan represents all that is wrong with the hell they’ve been put through.  Not only did they have to sacrifice two men to find him, but he doesn’t even want to return with them.  This is because Ryan also feels attached to his military brothers, and he doesn’t want to abandon them.

The movie offers an explosive third act that sort of comes out of nowhere.  It’s a slight detour from the movie’s plot as Miller decides his men will help Ryan’s men in their own mission to defend a bridge in the French city of Ramelle.  Miller’s decision is foreshadowed in an earlier scene in which he commands his men to take down a German machine gun that he knows could be disastrous to future military groups as they cross the area.  The other soldiers, distressed by his decision, say it’s not their problem to deal with.

By the time we get to Ramelle, the soldiers aren’t arguing with Miller’s decision.  Finally completely united by the bond of war, they begin to organize for the looming battle, almost like a training montage from Rocky.  All interpersonal rifts are tossed aside, and the soldiers work together effortlessly.  Miller’s company even makes nice with Private Ryan.

This battle is very much like the Omaha Beach scene except now we get to watch people we’ve learned about and felt for get slaughtered instead of the nameless people from before.  Where many of the deaths in the first battle (like the guy who loses his face, the guy who loses his lower body, the guy who survives a bullet to the helmet only to get another bullet to the head, the guy who drowns, the guy who explodes) were shocking simply because of the method, most of the deaths in this scene are more ‘ordinary,’ but just as tough to bear because we know who they are.

One counterexample, though, is the death of Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg) who is slowly stabbed in the chest by a German after they wrestle each other for a few minutes on the ground.  I used to be unable to watch this scene because of how he dies, and how slow it is.  God, it’s awful.  The reason his death is so painfully and methodically played out onscreen is because it’s meant to torture Timothy Upham, who could have done something to save his fellow soldier but was too frightened.  I’m not sure what this moment says beyond “war is horrible,” but Upham’s character really sees what it means to have and lose a brother.  Mellish was once the hardest on Upham but before the battle he finally showed him so affection like that of an older brother.  Upham watched the two soldiers who died previously as if from a distance, like someone teleported into the war to see what happened.  Not only is this one much closer to home, but it’s kind of his fault too.  This is something that will probably stick with his character forever, like how the war stuck with the survivors probably forever.

So a bunch of characters die.  Maybe at first it feels like they might survive, but at a certain point it becomes clear that their deaths might have been inevitable.  The long battle features plenty of creativity and improvisation by Miller and his men, and it shows just how much they’re capable of.  What’s crazy about this war, and many others, is that the people fighting it were just ordinary people.  It’s important that Miller was a school teacher and so many of the other soldiers were just kids.  These aren’t supposed to be the people firing guns at each other in the name of national security.  They’re at least not the people you’d expect.  Yet war changes people, I’ve heard it said.  These soldiers witness and suffer a great deal, but they’re also pretty good at what they do.  They’re innovative, mostly calm under pressure and they can, at least for the time being, separate what they’re doing from what it means to do it.  They can compartmentalize while the war goes on, but I’m guessing that ability erodes once the battles end.

At the end of the day and the end of the movie, however, almost all of these men have been killed.  So it didn’t matter how skilled you were, the war still got you.  I’m not a very smart history student, but I do remember reading about how the invention of the machine guy (and guns in general) changed everything.  Guys were just mowed down like nothing, and this happens immediately during the Omaha Beach scene.  It’s a strong image to show how meaningless war is in general, with human beings falling like dominoes.  It definitely dehumanizes them in a way the Jews were dehumanized in the eyes of the Germans during the Holocaust and depicted in Schindler’s List.

But Private Ryan made it.  So I guess it’s a happy-ish ending.  Spielberg loves himself a nice, somewhat-comforting ending, but this one I suppose wasn’t really that happy.  It’s a mixed bag.  Miller dies in peace, somehow, and his last words, uttered to Private Ryan are “earn this.”  Now that’s survivor’s guilt.

Miller completed his mission and he died anyway.  I think it further emphasizes the absurdity and lack of meaning in war.  It really doesn’t matter what you do.  You only survive if you’re lucky.

This movie combats the idea of a movie god.  Movie God says Captain Miller (and his company all survive), but the point of the movie is that there is no point.  Even still, Movie God dictated that Captain Miller would complete his mission.  Despite the film’s declaration in the opening battle that anything can happen, and that no one is safe, there is some inevitability to the soldiers finding Private Ryan and then saving him.

Miller knows how difficult a task it’ll be to find Private Ryan, but it doesn’t matter.  They’re supposed to think it’s impossible.  You’re watching the movie because you know it’s possible and certain.  Matt Damon as Private Ryan is on the movie poster, and that makes no sense to me outside of the fact that the marketing team wanted to make it clear that Good Will Hunting’s Matt Damon was in this movie.

That’s Movie God.  The movie studio’s marketing team is like Movie God’s angelic messengers.  It makes the promises and sets the expectations so that you go in with the comfort (the belief in a higher power) that certain things will and will not happen.  Life is not like that, so that’s what Movie God is, I guess.  It’s not very thought out, but the point is that Spielberg’s movies often conform to your expectations even if he tries aggressively to battle against those same expectations.

The first 10 minutes of a film generally are meant to establish the rules for that film, and despite SPR’s your rule that there is a lot of violence and anyone can be killed, we know enough to know that’s not completely true.  But the film pulls you along, dragging you through the blood and the mud, and it’s a testament to Spielberg’s skill asa director that you can forget you’re follow Tom Hanks and Matt Damon and instead feel all the things you’re supposed to feel.

So that’s the real point, that Spielberg sets out to make you feel certain things, and you feel them.  But that last scene is pretty bad too.  We get the point of the film, the final scene is just as unnecessary as the first, but it is necessary because of the first.  Elderly James Francis Ryan visits Miller’s grave, with his family nearby, and he tells Miller’s grave that he did his best to “earn this.”  The worst moment in this scene is when he asks his wife to tell him he lived a good life.  The more I think about it, maybe it’s not so horrible.  It shows how much strain and guilt he most definitely felt throughout his life, but I thought that was conveyed enough in the scene showing Miller’s death.

Anyways, this came out the same year as another Tom Hanks film, You’ve Got Mail.  That film is incredibly dated by the technology, and it kind of blows my mind that Saving Private Ryan was really made that long ago.


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