Every year, between five to ten movies are bestowed the honor of being nominated by the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Many will have already enjoyed various successes throughout the year – good festival attendance, box office success and the reception of other prestigious awards. Yet, only one of them ends their evening being declared the best of the best.
Each month, I select one such film that, while honored with a nomination, did not achieve the highest recognition – a film for your consideration. Bringing these films back into the spotlight and into the minds of viewers gives them the chance to shine once again and reach a new group of people who may never have considered them previously. This month, I found inspiration for my selection after the release of this year’s top ranking war movie Dunkirk, as well as the various comparisons to its predecessor with regards to potential box office success and awards season.
Released 19 years ago, Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan was an instant breakout success and an early favorite for the 1998 awards season. Released just outside the typical considered “award season” on July of 1998, Saving Private Ryan was considered a sure thing to weigh heavily when nominations were announced six months later – and was an instant fan of critics. Its harsh look at the horrors of war on the soldier and the need to preserve family instantly solidified Saving Private Ryan as a classic.
To be completely honest, until it was time to prepare for this article, I had never seen Saving Private Ryan. I remember the film’s release and the wide popularity that it received, the film itself on my list of must see films since before I was in high school. Yet, somehow, it never made the top of my list. There was no specific reason I can think of why a movie so long on my “must-see” list remained unviewed, yet I am glad that I can finally say it has been. With this honest confession and war movies high on the minds of individuals this summer, it seemed only fitting to discuss.
Saving Private Ryan
The first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan instantly and brutally throws audiences into the graphic and gut wrenching battles launched on the shores of Normandy, France in 1944. There is a short, anxious moment as the boats pull up to the shore – only the faces of the soldiers to communicate the impending horrors. As the ramps lower, these soldiers are inundated with bullets, the graphic end to many of their lives up front and center – it is no surprise that many veterans who came to opening night walked out during these first twenty minutes.
As bodies fall, soldiers try to find any amount of cover while others try to aid their fallen comrades, the masses of faces slowly begin to focus on one – Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). A valiant and relentless leader, Captain Miller leads his men to victory, reclaiming the shores for the Allies and pushing German forces inland. This is the beginning of the end.
Yet, as the graphic scene closes out on the shores, the ramifications have reached the communications department of the United States homeland. A room crammed with female typists and stacks of completed letters filling the room, a horrific discovery is made. Three out of four children of a widowed mother have been slain overseas (one on the shores of Normandy), a testament to the gravity of the loss of life in World War II. With this discovery, it becomes the primary directive to find and bring the remaining son home to her.
Captain Miller is assigned the mission of finding Ryan (Matt Damon) and bringing him home – immediately forgoing his current mission of pushing the German’s further inland. Banding a small team together (men he has fought beside through several battles), they embark on a dangerous “needle-in-the-haystack” mission that may prove hope still exists – or cost them everything.
Another Steven Spielberg Masterpiece
Steven Spielberg is no stranger to war movies – especially when that war movie is focused on World War II. Five years before the release of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Yet, where his Schindler’s List focused on the war from the viewpoint of those being persecuted and the man whose soul mission became saving those lives from genocide, Spielberg was able to shift his direction to encapsulate the horrors of those who charged forward to end the bloodshed.
Working with a solid script from writer, Robert Rodat, Spielberg had an unlimited supply of visuals to draw from and depict on screen. From the storming of Normandy, to the graphic bloodshed, to the heartbreaking moments of loss and fear, he does not fail to deliver – many of these scenes imprinted on the mind forever. He was unafraid to show the horrors of war from a different perspective than he had before. When the boat arrives on shore, the shots are from the point of view of a soldier fighting to stay alive, yet Spielberg’s camera direction goes between this soldiers POV (camera in and out of the water for example) to a third person perspective delivering a 360 degree viewpoint into hell.
Bringing these visuals to life, however, would not have been possible without a strong and outstanding cast. Leading actor, and frequent collaborator, Tom Hanks brings to life the war-ridden Captain Miller, whose devotion to his men, his mission and his personal incentives drive him through every scene and every decision. Yet, his was not the only performance that would stand out.
As someone who has always heard of the film and always had the intent to see it, the only true cast members that I knew prior to seeing the film was Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, who became a breakout star the year before with Good Will Hunting. After finally seeing Saving Private Ryan, it was eyeopening to see recognizable actors throughout the film – many whose careers had just begun at the time of this film’s release and who have become cultural icons or household names since. Vin Diesel who would be later known for Fast and the Furious, Adam Goldberg best known for Dazed and Confused (and a guest role on Friends!), Giovanni Ribisi best known for The Other Sister and later on Sneaky Pete (and Friends!) and Bryan Cranston who would become best known for Breaking Bad were just some of the surprises within the cast that stood out.
Yet, it wasn’t just seeing faces in roles before or during their time that stood out. It was the culmination of amazing performances that were delivered by every actor throughout the film. Every element of this film, from the acting to the music, from script to direction, came to gather beautifully and brutally to create this timeless classic.
The Heartbreak of War
While the beginning of Saving Private Ryan shows a brutal and graphic depiction of storming the beaches of France, it also displays that the military decisions that cost hundreds of lives were the only options and seemingly last to take. With the cost of war weighing down on the hearts of soldiers and their countries, giving everything (and everyone) they had, dropping these men into a possibly lost cause from the moment their boat ramp drops, is one of the most heartbreaking moments of this film. It sets the stage early on, that while there are victories in war, they go hand in hand with heartbreak and loss.
Yet, it is not just the lives of the soldiers themselves lost on the battle, but the heartbreak that is left for those still fighting around them and those they have left at home. Only moments after the end of the film’s opening battle, viewers are thrust back into the American homeland, in rooms filled with women and typewriters. Typing with impeccable speed and accuracy, these women are writing letters to family members informing them of the untimely death of their loved one overseas. As the camera pans, and viewers take in the horror, it is the stacks of completed letters that stand beside the typewriters, with only more and more letters to add to them. It is a sad moment to take in the full extent of the loss of war and the multiple people who will forever be heartbroken from the news they are about to receive.
Steven Spielberg is not one to leave to the imagination. Following the letters, viewers witness the heartbreak of a mother who is about to be informed of the deaths of her children. Without a word uttered, or an individual to confirm, the mother knows the heartbreak of war is about to cross the threshold of her home as she sees an official military vehicle make its way down the driveway. At this moment in the war, everyone knew before they were even told; the person in front of them was enough to confirm the worse. As the woman falls to the porch floor in agony, viewers will find their own hearts breaking as she may think it is only one son – but we know it will be three.
Yet, the visuals of the heartbreak and loss from war are just as clear and concise on the battlefield overseas. Bags of dog tags are dumped and gone through in the search for Private Ryan – another heartbreaking scene not just for the loss of life but the callus manner in which they are handled. A soldier (played by Vin Diesel), shot and irretrievable, yells for his comrades to bring the letter in his pocket to his father – a final message prewritten for loved ones. Yet, as his final moments are passing, he cries for the men to rewrite it as he has gotten blood all over it – his father cannot get the letter with his blood smear.
One of the ultimate heartbreaks that is at the core and foundation of this film, and is constantly addressed with all characters involved, is the heartbreaking decision of who during war is more important and who is worth saving. The most obvious is the saving of Private Ryan. With his brothers gone to this world and his mother’s heart shattered, his life has been decided upon by the government of the United States as important and worth the life of other soldiers to retrieve him. Yet, it is not just his life that is deemed important – Spielberg would not let his message be so obvious and understood.
While in search for Private Ryan, one of the war locations the small band comes across is the crash site of a plane – the remains of lives and machinery left out in the open. As the men try to obtain information that my lead them to Ryan, they discover that the plane crashed due to an increased weight that was brought on board the plane; a shield that was placed around the jeeps they were flying – a shield that was meant to protect the life of the general that would be traveling in the automobile. His life was decided as more important and valuable on the battleground (as well as in the air) – this decision costing the military their general, their machinery, and several of their men.
The Order of War
While heartbreak of war was a focal point of Saving Private Ryan (and one that really struck a cord with me), there was another heavily weighing issue that spoke loud and clear throughout the film – the order of war; the difference between following an order and doing what is right. This is immediately addressed as the small band of soldiers are searching for Private Ryan. Why is his life worth the lives of others? What makes his life more important? Should they continue this mission because they were told to or because it’s right?
Each time this concept was brought up, I was reminded of a scene recently on Orange is the New Black where Piper (Tayler Schiling) discusses a “tied to the tracks” scenario. There is an oncoming train and five people are tied to the tracks with not enough time to untie them. While you could pull a lever changing the train’s path, on this new track there is one person tied down – and not enough time to reach and untie them. Do you let the train hit the five, saving the life of one or do you change the train’s path sacrificing the one for the many? This is the same question that is posed throughout Saving Private Ryan – is it right to listen to the orders given to these men to save the life of one at the cost of many?
To further compound this, as a leader, knowing that this mission could cost the lives of yourself and those following you – do you listen to those orders or do you defy them?
When Saving Private Ryan is found and informed he is going home, he questions this rational. Why does he get to go home, an able and willing body, while his brothers are left to fight and die? He himself is faced with his own inner turmoil about what it means to follow orders and do what he knows and believes is right.
Yet, war is not just about orders given, but the order of war itself. Soldiers enlist, and during this war they all became a number on a tag – a nameless soldier in a mass of brutality and many times casualty. War has an order to itself that is hard to fight and survive – both during and after. Through the film, there is a running pool regarding who the captain is. His history and past is a mystery, representing that it doesn’t matter what you did or who you are – everyone is in the war for the same reason. When he finally reveals his history to the troops, for a moment it pulls them back into reality and outside of the parameters and mindsets of war; they were once someone other than a soldier and there is a life and people they are fighting to return to.
We need to forget the past and those we left behind to do their job, but yet there still needs a moment to remember them to continue to find the strength to fight and to do their duty (do what they are ordered to do). Yet the order of war is inescapable, returning as quickly as it left – the mission and the fight trumping the memories and loved ones back home.
There is so much to this film, more than I could touch upon. It is a film that has the ability to relate a variety of concepts, meanings and emotions, while still providing a different experience and interpretation for everyone that watches it. Saving Private Ryan is a film I found myself considering, and highly recommend you do as well. It is hard to watch at times, but so beautifully executed you will find yourself unable to look away.
What are your thoughts on Saving Private Ryan?