Friday, June 6, 2014

Thoughts On Film: Saving Private Ryan

 As row after row of Soldiers are cut down by constant machine gun fire and artillery blasts, a few manage to find footing on the beach. The only sounds are the rattling of the guns, the booming explosions, and the screams of the wounded and dying. Captain John Miller sees one Soldier run up to him through the cascade of enemy fire.

 "Sir, what's the rally point?"

 "Anywhere but here!"

 This is the invasion of Normandy as depicted in one of the landmark films of recent years, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The story is a simple one: A squad of US Army Soldiers in Europe manage to survive the hellish attack on Omaha beach of June 6, 1944. Three days later, they are tasked to locate Private First Class James Ryan of the 101st Airborne Division. PFC Ryan's three brothers were all killed in action and the Army has decided that Ryan must be sent home. (Though fictional, the story was inspired by real-life examples of siblings who fought concurrently. Department of Defense policy now allows for serving family members of those killed in action to be exempted from combat.)


 " looking for a needle in a stack of needles."

 Naturally, the troops have misgivings about what seems to them a public relations mission rather than a tactical one. Without cellphones, GPS systems, Twitter, or Facebook, they have to find one man whose location is "somewhere in France, probably, if he isn't already dead." On top of that, someone who is not trying to be found. Even CPT Miller (Tom Hanks), who properly refuses to question his orders in front of his men, holds out little hope for success. The horror of the opening battle is a shadow through the rest of the film, with any moment holding the prospect that the small group will encounter a larger German force, or that a single well-placed sniper could take them down. (This is to say nothing of the possibility of other American or Allied troops accidentally mistaking them for the enemy.)

 "You wanna explain the math of this to me? I mean, where's the sense of riskin' the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?"
 "We all have orders, and we have to follow 'em. That supersedes everything, including your mothers."

 As they make their way through the countryside, occasionally encountering other Army units and trying to determine if Ryan is in their ranks or among their casualties, the Soldiers wrestle with the thought that, officially, Ryan's life is more important than theirs and how they too have families back home. The new guy (there's always a new guy), translator Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), wants to learn about the camaraderie of the team, but to them, he's still an outsider. He's spent the war behind a desk and hasn't seen the action that they have. CPT Miller still tries to maintain some distance by refusing to reveal anything about his life and family back home; he has to order these men to kill and may have to order them to die and prefers that they not get too close.

 When skirmishes break out and men in the team die, the question is no longer hypothetical: is saving Private Ryan worth the cost?

 Eventually, they manage to find PFC Ryan (Matt Damon) as part of a contingent of men holding a strategically important bridge. Of course, finding him is not the end of the mission. They have to get him back safely to a secure transport, and the odds of a quiet jaunt through the French countryside are not good. What they hadn't counted on was Ryan choosing to stay, when any of the men who were hunting for him would gladly have gone back home after surviving D-Day. But the camaraderie that unites Miller's squad is also felt by the man who is their mission.

 "Tell her that when you found me I was here and I was with the only brothers that I have left and that there was no way I was gonna desert them. I think she'll understand that. There's no way I'm leaving this bridge."
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 From the day it hit the theaters, Saving Private Ryan was a game-changer. The realism of its battle sequences has impacted every historical war movie made since then, including star Tom Hanks's own landmark HBO mini-series Band of Brothers, based on the real exploits of the 101st Airborne's Easy Company. According to William Manchester,  men in war do not fight for flag, country, glory or other abstractions, but for one another. The men in this film are not in a position to see the "big picture," so they do the only thing they can--fight to get themselves and their buddies through one more day. They resent anything that makes that harder, or reduces the odds that they can all go home. For me, one of the biggest messages of the film is that even if one does not think war is wrong, one can still acknowledge that war is a terrible thing, and that even good warriors pay a price for their participation. What the men in the film can't see in the heat of battle and the insanity of a war zone is that their mission to find one man and protect him is essentially what the military is supposed to do for all of us: fight the enemy so that complete strangers can be safe. When a mortally-wounded Miller tells Ryan, "Earn this...earn it..." I find myself thinking about how all of us today benefit from the sacrifices made seventy years ago. Thousands risked their lives, and many of them lost their lives, to allow us to have the freedom we have now. Let's not waste that gift, but rather use it to keep this nation a free one, and to make this world a better place for everyone.

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