“This time the mission IS a man.” — Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore)

Joseph Stalin once brilliantly pointed out, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This fully sums up both the madness of war when it is executed on a mass scale and, perhaps more tellingly, how it is so continually rationalized in the civilized world. In the distant past, wars required no justification on the part of the ruler other than a customary notice to the ruled that the realm was expanding into new territory to meet the needs of the expanding realm; governments were more absolutist back then, and so were their victories and defeats — losses in battle were blows to their claims to power. By the 20th century, war had grown much more complicated. For one thing, it didn’t involve just two nations at a time anymore: the first world war was among the biggest wastes of men, money, and materiel in history.

The famed “war of attrition” strategy — make the other side sustain so many casualties that they eventually just decide it’s not worth it to fight anymore — had horrible consequences, since neither side made much headway for years until the Hundred Days Offensive backpedaled the Germans out of France in late 1918. Unusually for a (relatively) recent major war, ideological differences didn’t factor into WWI all that much — Germany basically used its alliance with Austria-Hungary as an excuse to invade Belgium, Luxembourg, and (ultimately and especially) France, more or less because the nation felt restless in the years since its unification in 1871. (Hey, Germany did gain Alsace and Lorraine in the then-recent Franco-Prussian War, after all; it’s understandable from their perspective that they wanted to come back for more.)

Nowadays, of course, when a country invades another country (such as Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine), the international community goes kind of nuts and stands against the action as a collective because we know after experiencing two world wars in the first half of the 20th century that we should do whatever it takes to avoid a third. The American wars that have followed the second world war have stemmed from ideological conflicts, and have manifested themselves specifically through a policy of containing a particular ideology we don’t like. During the Cold War, it was communism (Korea, Vietnam); in the years since it has been terrorism (Iraq, Afghanistan).

american flag at normandy

In the modern era of global interdependence and (supposedly) accountable governance, this appears to be the norm: war has to be justifiable, plain and simple. This is principally why the United States took forever to get involved in WWI: there was no reason to send people off to die when ideologically, there wasn’t a whole lot at stake — it was a territorial tug of war. As the war wore on, however, it was clear American forces were needed to break the stalemate on the western front, though America did not enter the war until 1917 — acts of belligerence against the United States (namely the Zimmermann Telegram and the sinking of the Lusitania) finally surfaced and generated enough political capital to justify to the American public the need for US involvement.

Much more was at stake in World War II, obviously — extreme ideologies like fascism and communism had manifested themselves in the worst possible ways in Europe (e.g., Nazi Germany’s Third Reich and Russia’s Soviet Union) and the Empire of Japan began its conquest of Asia as early as 1931 with its invasion of Manchuria — yet still America remained isolationist (due to its weak economy) until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Once that happened, we couldn’t declare war fast enough, and no other war in our history has been more easily justifiable — we were directly attacked and besides, World War II was the last “good war.”

Evil was so firmly on the side of the opposition in both theaters of the war — keep in mind, what the Japanese did to the people they conquered (e.g., the Rape of Nanking) rivaled the Holocaust, and it is estimated that 20 million Chinese (civilians, mostly) were killed during WWII — that our mission was simply to eliminate it (or at least push it back underground where it belongs), and naturally the entire country threw its support behind the cause. Never at any point in human history had the livelihood of the entire world been threatened so dramatically, and World War II even today still marks the single greatest collision of conflict in the history of civilization.

empty the boats

Remarkably, the greatest leaders in such situations (such as the aforementioned Stalin) possess a profound ability to reduce human beings to pieces on a chess board. In psychological typing, this is manifested through extraverted thinking, the utilization of which results in strong organizational skills, particularly when it comes to dictating the lives of others. When extraverted thinking is dominant, however, introverted feeling is at its most recessed; this is precisely what gives a person who has risen to such a position the ability to make seemingly impossible decisions that involve the price of human lives on a mass scale — how the leader feels about it personally factors the least into the decision-making.

In the chess game representing contemporary war, one side moves pieces around in the name of one ideology, the opposing side in the name of another. In order to make the pieces move, the ideology must be perceived as just: as Napoleon (another leader that, like Stalin, possessed similar qualities) once said, “A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.” Perhaps no other film in the history of cinema drives home the weight of the destruction of human life on a mass scale than in the 24-minute Omaha Beach sequence — shot entirely with handheld cameras — that opens Saving Private Ryan: the men slaughtered on the beach are pawns on the board, and nothing more. (In fact, if a lesser piece existed in chess, they would represent that.)

Man after man is gunned down in warfare so chaotic, brutal, and intense, it becomes clear from the very start that survival has nothing to do with skill with a weapon or prowess on the battlefield. (For example, when the boat carrying Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) makes landfall, all of the soldiers positioned at the front of his boat are immediately shot up, and he orders what’s left of his men to jump over the side lest they be massacred, as well.) The D-Day invasion was the equivalent of a gambit in chess, an opening in which a pawn is sacrificed to gain better position on the opponent. Many men were ordered to their deaths (the Allies sustained more than 10,000 casualties), yet it was the turning point in the European Theater of World War II; eleven months later, the Third Reich was no more.

elderly james ryan walks amongst the graves

The decision by director Steven Spielberg to open the film in the then-present of 1998 at the cemetery in Normandy adds to the weight of the following combat sequence — we view the deadly action having already seen the graves. Yet also just as effective is the lack of typical introduction to the characters. By opening the flashback without any preamble — we know nothing about the characters we are following onto the beach — Spielberg is given license to kill off any character that graces the screen, which he makes liberal use of through random and chaotic violence. Indeed, many of these men crawling around on the beach are just ghosts — from our perspective, they’re dead already since we have seen their graves, which lends a haunting and surreal quality to the hyper-violent action.

It’s awful stuff to watch and it’s a potent reminder of the cost of reducing human lives to cogs in a war machine, even if the cause is legitimate. Prior to watching Saving Private Ryan again as a lead-in to this essay, several years had passed since I had last seen the film, and truth be told, even though I had seen it plenty of times prior to this latest drought, I had largely forgotten just how visceral its impact is. I knew the story backwards and forwards, and even most of the dialogue was expected this time through, but whoa, those combat scenes really are something, aren’t they? Perhaps since so little story is attached to these scenes — the Omaha Beach sequence and the climax in Ramelle are pure combat — and the action is so visceral, ’tis nobler in the mind to let the memories fade than suffer through them repeatedly.

What struck me upon this re-watch, however, was how differently the movie was focused in a cinematic sense during these two combat sequences. During the Omaha Beach sequence, the scope is considerably wider — the film has yet to settle into a particular narrative — and Saving Private Ryan does an incredible job of utilizing this to its advantage, particularly since the characters we follow onto the beach are defined mostly through action. Furthermore, the implications of waging war on such a scale weigh heavily on our thoughts throughout the sequence — we are basically watching soldiers run towards death in the worst, most inescapable nightmare conceivable.

miller informs horvath of the mission

Once D-Day is over, Miller receives his mission: assemble a squad, go find Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) behind enemy lines and bring him home to his grieving mother, who has just been informed of the loss of her other three sons at the same time. (One of them died on Omaha Beach as part of the invasion.) From here, Saving Private Ryan becomes much different, settling into a typical narrative film. Interestingly, though, the story told by the film is predicated on inverting the inherently utilitarian philosophy (i.e., the greatest good for the greatest number) of war: in a successful war campaign, the ratio of casualties to preserved lives is stacked in favor of the civilians remaining in the nation’s interior.

It is impossible to imagine Stalin, for instance, green-lighting a mission like this, which only further illustrates how critical ideology is to deciding where a nation moves pieces on the chess board. A dictator like Stalin would never consider trading a knight for a pawn, which is what Miller’s mission essentially is — in Stalin’s Soviet Union, all were pawns that served the collective, so knights and bishops didn’t really exist, and if they did they were looked at as pawns by Stalin anyway since the power was centralized within his dictatorship. But in America, one of our core values is that those in the military are public servants, and in the eyes of the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell), the country has a duty to return home to that mother her last living son from the war.

Indeed, it is a mistake the greatest American president regrets having not avoided making decades earlier:

I have a letter here, written a long time ago, to a Mrs. Bixby in Boston. So bear with me. “Dear Madam: I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln.”

The price paid by Mrs. Bixby during the American Civil War is unthinkably catastrophic, and the mother of Private James Francis Ryan has paid a price that may only include 3/5 of the lives in the Bixby scenario, but those who would tell her at least only three sons have died instead of five would need to undergo sensitivity training for the rest of their lives. Mrs. Ryan has contributed enough of her nest to the war, and it’s time she is reunited with the only son she has left or the nest will remain empty forever. Still, however great this gesture may be, in pure military terms it’s a little tough to justify risking the lives of several for just one kid; it’s simply not utilitarian.

general george c. marshall

Tactically, it’s a losing proposition as well, but again, it is important to keep in mind that the soldiers in the United States military are still members of a free society, and are ultimately ordinary citizens instead of slaves to the government’s bidding — if our soldiers are sent to war against their will, they no longer fight for the freedom our country is supposed to represent. The decision has been made: the nation is in debt to Mrs. Ryan, and if her last living son James dies, this debt will prove insurmountable. And so the quest begins — Miller assembles his squad and we’re on our way.

While the characters in Miller’s squad of grumbling grunts certainly have human dimensions, they still too easily fall into types (e.g., the New Yorker, the Jew, the Italian, the Southerner, etc.) for such an otherwise accomplished movie and if the film feels like a letdown in its execution at all, it’s in this regard. The most effective characters are the sensitive medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) — his regret-tinged story about pretending to be asleep when his mother would come home from work has a startling and quiet power, echoed later during his exit — and the almost non-soldier Upham (Jeremy Davies), who fittingly turns out to be the most unique of the lot.

As we observe Upham, it becomes clear to us he has no place in war — he is an academic, a thinker, an observer — and during one particularly wrenching scene he is too afraid to come to the rescue of his fellow soldier Mellish (Adam Goldberg) as he tussles with a German POW Upham insisted Miller let go earlier in the film. The soldier then takes pity on Upham and lets him live, and it’s with some sadness that we watch Upham later kill that same German soldier (who has surrendered) after Upham realizes he has been recognized — even when Upham kills it is an act of cowardice. The second act is easily the weakest of the film, particularly the second half of it, which comprises the 50-75% stretch.

The ill-conceived attack on the bunker that ultimately results in the loss of Wade comes across as somewhat forced, particularly given that they locate Ryan in the following sequence. The scene where Ryan relates the story of how his eldest brother was hooking up with someone his other brothers didn’t approve of — “picture a girl who took a nosedive from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down” — the night before he left for basic training doesn’t really have its intended effect; it comes across as too obvious an attempt at character development since the story doesn’t move forward at all and there isn’t any conflict within the scene.

In fact, the “calm before the storm” captured just before the climax has always seemed unnecessarily slow to me, but despite these flaws in the script, there’s no question that Saving Private Ryan is not just a superb film, but a Great American Film. Indeed, in the American Film Institute’s most recent (2007) list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, Saving Private Ryan was one of very few movies released since the unveiling of AFI’s original list (1998) to be added to the updated version; it came in at #71. In 2008, the AFI revealed ten separate lists of the 10 greatest American films in particular genres; one of them was Epics, and Saving Private Ryan was #8 on that list. It was also ranked #10 on the AFI’s 2006 list of the 100 most inspirational American films, and for good reason: a more honorable film has never been made to salute America’s veterans.

earn this

I was also enormously moved by the ending during my re-watch of the film, even more so than I can recall during past viewings. I come from a military family, and my grandfather fought in the Pacific Theater of WWII, so it particularly hits home for me, especially since my grandfather has been gone for just over ten years now. In fact, it is with great sadness that I have watched the so-called “Greatest Generation” — as Tom Brokaw famously dubbed them (around the time of Saving Private Ryan‘s release, incidentally) — vanish from the planet, slowly but surely. Given this inevitable disappearance of our WWII vets, it’s hard for Capt. Miller’s dying words to Private Ryan — “James… earn this. Earn it.” — not to take on an additional weight. In the narrative of the film, Miller is simply asking Ryan to make sure he lives a life worthy of the sacrifices Miller (and his squad) have made for him, and that’s certainly moving on its own terms.

When the film shifts back to 1998 at the cemetery, today it’s impossible not to consider Miller’s words through the prism of what has happened since 1998. At the time this movie was made, America had never been a better place: Soviet communism had been defeated, our economy was booming, and it was thought that there was no one left to fight; we had seemingly reached the “end of history” (no more wars). It’s interesting to consider when this movie came out given this context — made ten years earlier or ten years later, and Saving Private Ryan might not have had the same cultural effect (or, more likely, the movie’s tone would have been slightly different).

It’s with some sadness, though, that I was forced to confront the realities of mass casualties inflicted during the events of the film during this latest re-watch, because it’s a harsh reminder of what has simply been wasted over the past ten to fifteen years; the sacrifices depicted on screen were for the preservation of something we have since thrown away, it would seem. My grandparents’ generation was lauded for its heroism because the entire country came together to win that damn war (unlike with subsequent wars like Vietnam, privilege couldn’t keep you out of harm’s way), establishing the country as a global superpower, and as they got older they set the country on course for sustained economic growth.

World War II was a process that reduced the value of a human life by an unthinkable degree — in battle, 20-30 million lives were lost; when including civilian deaths due to related issues (not the least of which was the Holocaust), the total number balloons to 60-85 million. As Stalin implied, it’s impossible to emotionally feel the weight of such a number (it would totally overwhelm the human psyche to actually multiply the effect of one human death on a person by millions), and even the most sensitive of us therefore rationalize mass death by suppressing feeling. (Unfortunately for Mrs. Ryan, though, three deaths is not too many to overwhelm her psyche, especially considering they’re her sons.)

miller's hand tremors

The potential foolhardiness of the mission is not lost on Miller’s men, and after the unit suffers its first KIA (Vin Diesel‘s Caparzo) Miller begins to express his doubts, remarking to Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore) that to him James Francis Ryan is just a name, that he’ll never be worth what Caparzo or any of the 94 men who have died under his command were worth to him. After Wade’s death, the squad abruptly splinters apart — although it is never specifically mentioned by anyone on screen, having lost two men already (putting them at a permanent net loss) to save one guy who may not even still be alive weighs heavily on the proceedings — forcing Miller to finally reveal the information about himself he had been hiding since leaving for the war: that he was a schoolteacher and baseball coach in his past life. Reiben (Edward Burns), who was threatening to leave, decides to stay, and in one of my favorite moments of the film, gives Ryan a little nod of acknowledgement just before the Germans arrive in Ramelle. (Another nice touch is the letter that goes from Caparzo to Wade to Miller to Reiben upon each character’s exit.)

All of the actors are good, and it’s also fun to see some character actors appear in small roles (often in just a scene or two). Eventual television actors include: a pre-Malcolm in the Middle and pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston, a pre-Firefly and pre-Castle Nathan Fillion, and a pre-Sons of Anarchy Ryan Hurst. Film actors include: Paul Giamatti, who had done some stuff but still wasn’t then what he became after doing Sideways in 2004; Vin Diesel, who became a major star a few years later with The Fast and the Furious (2001); and Matt Damon, of course, even though he had already experienced his breakout role six months previously in Good Will Hunting (1997). What struck me during this viewing is that Jeremy Davies is probably the best actor of the bunch (i.e., he displays a lot of range and control), and it turns out my suspicions that he has been “classically trained,” as they say, were correct: he went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts instead of a traditional college or University. (Unlike Brits, actors here in the States tend not to attend what those across the pond call “acting school.”)

upham can't overcome his cowardice

Surprisingly, Davies wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars that year, which is too bad. (His only nomination was from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle.) Instead, Hanks was the only recipient of an Oscar nomination, which was more than deserving — I had only remembered it as a good/serviceable performance, but he really is great. Of course, the big story that year was the shocking upset Miramax (then led by Harvey Weinstein) pulled off with Shakespeare in Love‘s win for Best Picture over DreamWorks‘ Saving Private Ryan. DreamWorks was founded in 1994 by Spielberg (and two huge entertainment titans Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen), and after releasing films starting with 1997’s The Peacemaker (a movie I actually remember), Saving Private Ryan was the studio’s first serious contender for Best Picture the following year. Spielberg had already proven that he could produce a Best Picture winner with 1993’s Schindler’s List, but Saving Private Ryan was doubly personal for him, since the film was his own movie, produced and released through his own studio.

In Hollywood, there has long been tension between artists and studio brass; having an artist like Spielberg run a studio is not how the industry is supposed to work, even if he is the most commercially successful director of all time. Saving Private Ryan was a huge critical and commercial hit, and rewarding it with Best Picture would have been an affirmation of Spielberg’s labors not just as a director, but as a studio chief. Alas, it was not to be. Spielberg received an Oscar for Best Director, but was denied an Oscar for Best Picture. (DreamWorks has since had to receive corporate backing — first from Viacom, then from Disney — to continue operations, so even if Spielberg pulls off another Picture/Director win, it won’t have the same significance.) It’s hard not to view this result in symbolic terms, though what’s much more likely is that the Academy simply liked Shakespeare in Love more but didn’t respect John Madden enough to hand him Best Director, as well, so they gave it to Spielberg.

big gun

At the end of the night, Shakespeare in Love won seven Oscars, while Private Ryan swept the techs, winning Director, Cinematography, Editing, and both Sound categories — and with good reason. Visually, Saving Private Ryan is simply arresting. Director of Photography Janusz Kamiński won the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work here, and deservedly so. Something I never quite caught until I watched the film on Blu-ray for the first time is that the focus is noticeably soft throughout — this must have been intentional on the part of Spielberg and Kamiński in order to achieve the look of old war photographs. The color is likewise very washed-out, a look that’s very common in war films today (such as Clint Eastwood’s pair of Iwo Jima films) but was wholly innovative back in 1998. There is also a considerable amount of grain to the image, which helps retain the gritty, old-fashioned, filmic look.

Part of the power of Saving Private Ryan‘s look is its ability to reduce the vibrancy from the image; in other words, to squeeze the life out of what we’re looking at. With nature out of the picture (and anything resembling human civilization in complete ruin), all that’s left is humans killing each other. One of the niftier achievements of the film’s cinematography is the variance of the cameras’ shutter speed. When shooting a moving image, there is actually a shutter that, when set at 180°, blocks half of the light after it passes through the lens. This is to prevent light from hitting the film between frames; therefore, when something is shot at 24 frames per second, each frame of film captures 1/48th of a second of light — half of the light passes through the aperture and hits the film, the other half simply hits the shutter. When you want to shoot at a higher speed (i.e., slow motion), you actually have to widen the shutter angle as well to let the correct amount of light in, or the image will be underexposed.

germans shoot up a tank of americans

You can also widen the shutter angle when shooting at 24 fps, as well, which results in a blur effect — light captured on film starts to run into each other on the frames. (A typical example is a shot of stretching headlights on a freeway.) With Saving Private Ryan, they actually do the opposite, which is particularly noticeable during the climactic battle scene in Ramelle. The third edition of Kris Malkiewicz and M. David Mullen’s book Cinematography does a bang-up job of gracefully explaining it, so I’ll get out of the way for a moment.

Exposure time controls the amount of motion blur recorded on each frame; due to the low sampling rate of 24 fps, a certain amount of blur is needed to make a moving object on one frame visually “blend” with the next frame. Too little blur and the motion seems too “sharp” and the viewer becomes more aware as to how few motion samples there really are; it no longer feels continuous but instead “steppy.” Therefore, shooting at 24 fps with a closed-down shutter, like at a 45° or 90° angle, will cause faster motion to strobe heavily. This has been used as a creative effect by some filmmakers, since it adds a certain nervous, jittery energy to action scenes. The movie Saving Private Ryan is the most famous example of this technique; many of the battle scenes were shot handheld with a 45° shutter angle.

The effect adds an eye-popping intensity to the action, for sure. To illustrate this principle of strobing with an example you may be more familiar with, if you’re an owner of an HDTV, you may have noticed that some models (particularly Samsung TVs) allow you to adjust/reduce the amount of blur and judder (strobe) to the image. In my experience, judder is a much bigger issue than blur when watching stuff in high definition, but I set my television to reduce both as much as it can. What has happened with HDTVs is that the amount of definition is so pronounced that the image begins to take a 3D effect, and when the camera pans or tilts, it moves a 3D-looking image that is still technically only being shown in 2D, and the TV can’t render the image fast enough. (Think of everything in front of the camera as a 3D box and you should get the idea.) That’s why sometimes things don’t look entirely fluid on an HDTV, even on TVs with a high refresh rate. This should give you an idea of what Saving Private Ryan achieves, though since it’s accomplished in-camera, it doesn’t result in a playback issue like with what I was referring to on HDTVs.

storming omaha beach

Sonically, of course, Saving Private Ryan is arguably even more impressive than it is visually, and really, there’s not a whole lot that can be said other than that stuff explodes and it all sounds great. (Isn’t it amazing how much of an upgrade the sound effects are over say, Platoon‘s from just 12 years earlier (which also won a Sound Oscar)? Astonishing.) John Williams turns in another wonderful score, though Spielberg wisely keeps the battle scenes music-free. Still, the score is a certainly a winning contribution that adds measurably to the film’s emotional pull, even if the themes aren’t as immediately ingratiating as the themes from his more famous scores (e.g., Star Wars, Indiana Jones). Spielberg once related in an interview — a great Turner Classic Movies special called Spielberg on Spielberg — how fortunate he has been to have John Williams essentially rewrite all of his movies, which I thought was an interesting way of looking at it and highlights how deeply collaborative Spielberg is.

By the time the film returns to the cemetery and the man is cleverly revealed to be an elderly Private Ryan, looking at Capt. Miller’s tombstone with his wife and family, it’s evident that this has been quite a movie. It’s also curious that his asking his wife if he has led a good life and if he truly has “earned it” as his former commanding officer instructed is so moving, when from a logical standpoint we know that none of these characters are real and that the mission, though supposedly based on a real incident, is so anti-utilitarian. (A suppressed bit of logic, however, that ultimately is not raised by the film is the fact that if Ryan actually went with Miller’s squad, every single one of the men he would have left behind would have perished in the German onslaught (they surely would have died before the reinforcements arrived), so, actually, staying there and fighting immediately saved the lives of several compared to the two that were lost on the way to finding him.)

ryan looks down at miller

Yet an ingenious little tactic employed by the film is the insert of a voiceover in the form of a letter addressed to Mrs. Ryan by General Marshall right after Miller’s death, which sharpens the focus for us:

My dear Mrs Ryan: It’s with the most profound sense of joy that I write to inform you your son, Private James Ryan, is well and, at this very moment, on his way home from European battlefields. Reports from the front indicate James did his duty in combat with great courage and steadfast dedication, even after he was informed of the tragic loss your family has suffered in this great campaign to rid the world of tyranny and oppression. I take great pleasure in joining the Secretary of War, the men and women of the U.S. Army, and the citizens of a grateful nation in wishing you good health and many years of happiness with James at your side. Nothing, not even the safe return of a beloved son, can compensate you, or the thousands of other American families, who have suffered great loss in this tragic war. I might share with you some words which have sustained me through long, dark nights of peril, loss, and heartache. And I quote: “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” – Abraham Lincoln. Yours very sincerely and respectfully, George C. Marshall, General, Chief of Staff.

The weight of what our veterans sacrificed for us is so heavy on our minds by this point in the film (i.e., we ask ourselves if indeed we have earned what they sacrificed for, as well) that the elder Mr. Ryan’s emotions transfer to ours rather easily.

private ryan at the tombstone of captain miller

Spielberg has always had such a way with telling humanistic stories like this one. Unfortunately, though, his career has been up and down since Saving Private Ryan; he has made good movies (Minority Report, Lincoln) — and a great one (Munich), as well — but has not contributed another Great American Film to the canon. Spielberg is said to have been devastated by the Best Picture loss, so maybe that’s why it took him a while to re-engage with making “Oscar movies” again, first with Munich and then with Lincoln. Lincoln, I understand, was one he really wanted to win — he spent years getting financing for the project — but I thought that even though it had wonderful dialogue and acting, it basically had the sensibility of a sports movie when it came down to the voting for the 13th Amendment, which turned me off a little. So yeah, I wasn’t surprised that Argo won instead, even though Ben Affleck wasn’t even nominated for Best Director.

One of Spielberg’s biggest contributions since Saving Private Ryan, however, has been on the small screen in the form of the ten-hour HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which is an absolute must-see. It’s a companion piece that, like Private Ryan, focuses on the European Theater of World War II, but with greater depth and detail. The war film — particularly the World War II film — is so commonplace that new ones seem to be continually ushered in and out of the theaters. It’s amazing, then, that Saving Private Ryan managed to set a new standard for making “the war film” when the genre is so overpopulated and that the standard still holds today — the film literally hasn’t aged at all. Unsurprisingly, other directors have avoided touching Spielberg’s approach, as if they are afraid they will fall short.


The best American WWII films since Private Ryan have been Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (produced by Spielberg, incidentally), which looked at the war from the Japanese perspective, and the not-nearly-as-good companion film Flags of Our Fathers (also produced by Spielberg), which was more of a war drama about the famous Iwo Jima picture than an actual war movie (though one Saving Private Ryan-ish battle scene was extremely impressive). Overall, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker has been the best post-Private Ryan war film, though it’s a much different movie — not to mention small and produced outside of the studio system — about a much different war. Still, it’s clear in retrospect that few (if any) films in recent memory have set the bar within their genre as high as Saving Private Ryan did, and it will likely be a long time before another movie reinvents the war film yet again.