Tuesday, June 28, 2011

All for One

"This Ryan better be worth it."

Steven Spielberg forever changed the American war film when he directed Saving Private Ryan. Before this, war movies were shot with the biggest action stars running into open battlefields and killing hundreds of faceless enemies single-handedly. After the battle was over they gave us a speech about the horrors of war and then walked off with the girl. Even films as good as The Longest Day fell into these types of cliches.

From the very beginning of Saving Private Ryan we know that this is unlike anything we've ever seen before. When the first doors drop on the beach at Normandy, carnage is unleashed on the screen in a way that we will never be able to forget. These men are scared, tired and just want to stay alive for one more day. There is no false heroism or bravado. This is war as we should see it portrayed. This is reality.

The plot revolves around a group of eight soldiers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), who are given an impossible mission in the aftermath of D-Day. A grieving mother back home has just been told that three of her sons were killed in service to their country; there is still a fourth son alive somewhere in Europe. James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) is a paratrooper who has landed in an unknown position in South France. News of the tragic loss to this family makes its all the way to the top brass of the military. Moved by the story, orders are given to send a rescue party to find Ryan and get him back home.

"It's like finding a needle in a stack of needles."

From the outside looking in, we see a reason for a rescue mission like this. For the eight men who have been sent to find Ryan, it just doesn't make sense. The men in Miller's command have grown close through battle. They have unspoken bonds, inside jokes and a deep commitment to one another. Then enters a small, cowardly translator. Corporal Upham is a man who has spent the war behind a desk but, now he has been pulled into the chaos. He is unprepared for the crash course and his terror leaves him completely paralyzed. He has no desire to kill, he doesn't even want to be near it, he just wants to survive and go home.

The men set out and begin the long march through occupied France. Everyday they lose faith just a little bit more than the day before. The mission is insane. Miller struggles with the numbers the most. In one conversation he explains how he can justify losing ten or even a hundred of the men in his command because he knows that doing so could save a thousand or more. But Ryan is one man, and he is risking the lives of eight. This is one of Tom Hanks' greatest roles, if not the greatest. Captain Miller is a good man. He loves his men and fights as hard as he can to stay strong for them. He is loved and respected and we get the sense that he and his men have been through hell and back more than once.

It is not until the third act of the film that Miller and his men finally find Private Ryan. He is huddled together with his fellow soldiers trying to defend an important tactical bridge from the Germans. When Ryan receives news of his brothers and his free ticket home, the reaction he has is surprising. He refuses to leave the bridge. The bridge seems to be all that he has left now. The bridge and the men beside him.

"Is that what I'm supposed to tell your mother when she gets another folded American flag?"
"You can tell her that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left. And that there was no way I was deserting them. I think she'd understand that."

Saving Private Ryan is an incredible movie. It is a three hour epic that places us right in the middle of one of the darkest parts of human history. As great as Spielberg is, he owes a great deal to his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Kaminski takes all of the chaos in the battles and presents it in a way that we can understand. We are able to follow all of the tactics and maneuvering in the battles. The shots are planned out in perfect detail. There are countless scenes that will linger in our memories long after the credits have rolled.

This is not an easy movie to sit through. It's not something to watch for enjoyment. But it will leave you with a deep respect for those who served. The bookends of the movie take place in 1998. An elderly Ryan (Harrison Young) has returned to France with his family. With only a few lines, Young gives one of the most powerful performances of the film. With these two scenes, Spielberg helps us to prepare for the onslaught that is about to begin and then eases us out to reflect on what we have been witness to. The reflection will go on for a very long time.

"Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do or die."


  1. Great review Wes. Thanks for visiting my blog :)


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