Movie of the Week 6/23/14: Saving Private Ryan

A70-6280With the anniversary of D-Day only a few weeks ago, and the 4th of July about to happen, I decided it was a good time to knock one of Steven Spielberg’s all-time great movies off of Shiran’s list. I’ve written about Spielberg’s work several times already, and will write about him further in the future I’m sure, and once again I am reminded just how amazing a filmmaker he really is. Saving Private Ryan is the sort of movie that only the best of the best could pull off, a technically amazing and morally complicated look at war. It should be the end of any discussion of Spielberg as a merely “sentimental” filmmaker, and a reminder of how talented the man really is, something that a startling number of my peers seem to forget.

Many people often dismiss Spielberg as “sentimental” or “soft” but I don’t know how you can look at a movie like Saving Private Ryan and think that. It’s a movie where Allied troops shoot Germans who are unarmed or running away, and laugh over the dog tags of their fallen brethren. It’s a movie where one of the main characters wimps out during the final battle, letting his friends die in the process, and the only way for him to redeem himself is to shoot an enemy soldier in cold blood. It’s also a movie where the titular Private Ryan (Matt Damon in his youth), having clearly lived a long life and had a nice big family, must still ask Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) tombstone if the life he lived was worthy of the sacrifice they made for him. I don’t see anything sentimental in showing a man carrying around such a burden for his entire adult life, or in Upham unable to overcome his fear, or in the “good guys” being barbaric.

The turning point in the story is when Miller finally opens up to his men, telling them a little bit about himself and who he was before the war. It’s a moment that both reveals what Miller is costing himself in this war, and also gives his increasingly disillusioned men some normalcy to latch on to. It posits the idea that you might go to war to defend basic human freedom and decency but that you might lose all of your own in the process. And this notion is what ends up motivating the men to keep Ryan safe; because they realize that this might be the one objectively decent thing they can do in this war, and while it might not matter in the grand scheme of the war, it will very much matter in their lives afterwards.

The core of the movie, like Schindler’s List before it, is exploring the minor acts of humanity that exist and survive amidst the inherent inhumanity of war. For some people this feels phony and cheap, but I will never understand that point of view. Because I think that Spielberg, being the master that he is, knows how to juxtapose that idea against some truly horrifying moments, on both a visceral and psychological level. And in doing that, movies like Saving Private Ryan are not “feel-good” or “sentimental”, but a call to action for all of us to strive for some basic human kindness… especially in the face of oppressive evil.

I do feel a little bad for pushing such a heavy (and long) movie on a work night before a holiday, but let’s check with Shiran to see what she thought in the end:

I didn’t expect Saving Private Ryan to be as hard to watch as it was. I’d been looking forward to seeing it for a while, and had already watched some scenes in school so I felt I at least had some idea of what I was getting into. But ultimately, I was naive to not expect a war movie to feel as brutal as this one did. The way the violence was simultaneously extremely graphic and coldly matter-of-fact made for a stunningly upsetting experience. While I thought the movie did a pretty good job of fleshing out the individual characters, I don’t find that I connected with any individual one more than I did with the overarching picture of war the film drew. And even as a Spielberg fan, I was pleasantly surprised with how the plot raised questions about death and war that no one is prepared to answer: What is the cost of a single life? Is it fair to send some men out to die so that others can live? Such a cynical look at war certainly isn’t uncommon in modern war movies, true, but it’s incredibly ballsy to take that point-of-view in a film specifically about WWII, generally considered one of the few wars for which we had a real and noble reason to fight. Pacifist philosophy is easy and obvious to apply to a film about Vietnam or Iraq, but only a filmmaker with as expert a grip on sentiment and emotion as Spielberg has could possibly make it work in a movie about a war that defined generations.

So that’s that, folks. Sorry for the delay on this one; between the 4th and my birthday it’s been a hectic week. But we should have a bunch of posts coming the next couple of days, so check back soon for more impassioned rants!

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