Saving Private Ryan has been a game-changer since the day it came out. It changed the way battles were filmed; the D-Day sequence was studied and emulated by filmmakers from Ridley Scott to Peter Jackson to Quentin Tarantino. It changed our concept of war realism, maybe all realism. It changed our reverence for World War II: old and new films, video games, and books about the war resurged after Ryan came out.
Ryan changed the way we remember World War II; along with the sorta-sequel TV show “Band of Brothers,” many millennials see America’s war on Hitler as a Spielberg-Hanks co-production. It even changed the way we think of Spielberg and Hanks (had they really never worked together before?), from purveyors of blockbusters to tellers of big tales we need to hear. And it changed young Hollywood: not since Coppola’s The Outsiders had a single film served as a (partial) launching ground for so many careers.
I know what the haters say: the events that inspired Saving Private Ryan wouldn’t have happened that way, and not only because any company landing at Omaha couldn’t have penetrated France so easily. The film is a melodrama about a conundrum that didn’t and wouldn’t happen, about as useful as a war film starring a horse with magic powers.
For such a useless film, it’s hardly an under-discussed one. The amount of ink spilled on Saving Private Ryan may actually exceed the amount of blood spilled during the real D-Day. As often happened, though, Roger Ebert pointed out something that most other critics missed, something that should have been a larger part of the conversation. In this case, he wrote:
Spielberg and his screenwriter, Robert Rodat, have done a subtle and rather beautiful thing: They have made a philosophical film about war almost entirely in terms of action. Saving Private Ryan says things about war that are as complex and difficult as any essayist could possibly express, and does it with broad, strong images, with violence, with profanity, with action, with camaraderie. It is possible to express even the most thoughtful ideas in the simplest words and actions, and that’s what Spielberg does. The film is doubly effective, because he communicates his ideas in feelings, not words.
I believe that a key reason we can still watch and quote Saving Private Ryan is that as Ebert says, it’s a “philosophical film” with arguments left unresolved. What does it really mean to sacrifice our young citizens in war? Not just for the nation, or for self-defense, but on behalf of another person? Why are teenage soldiers called upon to sacrifice themselves for some older lieutenant? (Even if only one teenage private dies in such an effort, wouldn’t he normally be sacrificing more years?) Saving Private Ryan turns the latter question in a populist direction by asking why these eight privates should risk life and limb for another grunt. Yet the subtext of that choice is still deeper.
What truly motivates soldiers – patriotism, blood-lust, desperation? Study after study has found that what truly motivates soldiers is the desire to help their fellow soldiers. To paraphrase Missy Elliott, this film puts that thing down, flips it and reverses it. One never doubts that the boys of Captain Miller’s company would sacrifice for each other, but some other random private? With the clever addition to their company of a stranger, a translater, themes of patriotism and sacrifice and camaraderie linger onscreen and off, themes that do well by never hardening into messages. It’s not like Brooklyn-born Reiben (played by Edward Burns), who nearly deserts over Miller’s mission, is proved wrong. At the end, when the elder James Ryan says he’s tried to live a good life, we know he didn’t cure a disease as Miller (Tom Hanks) had once hoped. Compared to the endings of the (outstanding) Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Color Purple, and Schindler’s List, the ending of Saving Private Ryan is decidedly, maybe even deliciously, ambivalent.
To me, one of the most striking things about Saving Private Ryan is that Spielberg didn’t really need to make it. He’d already swept the Oscars five years before with another film about World War II in Europe. If money was Spielberg’s only concern, he could have spent the 1990s lining up sequels to Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park. Most filmmakers become less ambitious and more idiosyncratic as they age. Spielberg didn’t have anything to prove to anyone, but he acted as though he did, challenging himself and his collaborators to go beyond their wheelhouses. That began with asking his regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to remove the camera lenses’ protective coating, put the negatives through something called “bleach bypass,” and shorten the shutter timing for an effect that eerily simulated 1940s newsreels. The handheld shots of the soldiers trudging around France are so tenderly organic, they almost feel like a response to then-new Dogme 95 rules about realism.
Famously, Spielberg forced most of his principal actors, including Hanks, to undergo a ten-day “boot camp” where they learned to, in Spielberg’s words, “respect what it was like to be a soldier.” Watching the film, it feels like it worked: the men aren’t jokey madcap characters in the mien of too-many WWII films, but instead decidedly ordinary. From Tom Sizemore to Jeremy Davies to Barry Pepper to Giovanni Ribisi to Adam Goldberg to Vin Diesel (he dies early, in the rainy scene), the cast barely seems to be acting at all, instead simply living through the intense horrors and collegial downtimes of war. If you’ve seen the Denzel Washington movie Courage Under Fire, you understand why Spielberg cast Matt Damon, but Damon is still remarkable as Ryan, learning about the fate of his brothers and pivoting immediately and convincingly to a good soldier rejecting any trace of victimhood. (And on some level, we all understand that Damon’s honorable career choices since this film – well, other than The Great Wall – represent him “earning this.”).
You can imagine an actor playing Captain Miller who isn’t Tom Hanks; you just don’t prefer anyone else in that foxhole with you. Most major star actors convey authority first, a “hidden heart of gold” second; Hanks’ authority comes later, from his more obvious decency. So it’s hard not to nod along when you hear:
You see, when… when you end up killing one of your men, you see, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two or three or ten others. Maybe a hundred others. Do you know how many men I’ve lost under my command? […] Ninety-four. But that means I’ve saved the lives of ten times that many, doesn’t it? Maybe even 20, right? Twenty times as many? And that’s how simple it is. That’s how you… that’s how you rationalize making the choice between the mission and the man.
And that in turn makes you feel the closeness, and the distance, between that speech and this one, later in the film:
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much my wife is even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I’ll ever be able to tell her about days like today. Ah, Ryan. I don’t know anything about Ryan. I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. It’s just a name. But if… You know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission.
[to Reiben] You want to leave? You want to go off and fight the war? All right. All right. I won’t stop you. I’ll even put in the paperwork. Just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.
Hanks earns this. He does.
And yet, for all that, I understand why Ebert didn’t include Saving Private Ryan on his Best Movies list (as he did five other Spielberg films), and even why the film famously lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love on Oscar night. I get why people aren’t always in love with Ryan, and I believe there to be two main reasons. One is, as I said, the ostensible implausibility of the plot, especially for those unwilling or uninterested in Ebert-like philosophical ruminations. The second reason is that since at least Kubrick, film snobs haven’t readily embraced any war film that isn’t clearly anti-war. Apocalypse Now? Platoon? Sure.
It’s true that Saving Private Ryan literally begins and ends with flag-waving, and that the translator character comes around to righteous violence, and that the tensions are resolved in a bro-bonding bloodbath. On a deeper level, one can feel Spielberg’s deep sympathy with soldiers and violence on behalf of morality. In a way, one can see Ryan as an extended justification/apologia for the violence (especially the cartoonish anti-Nazi type) of the Spielberg oeuvre. If that’s true, Saving Private Ryan may well offer a hidden message behind Spielberg’s sentimental morality and technical mastery: his hands were shaking the whole time.