SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

FOUR STARS - Profound

Our belief that film has the power to change people’s attitudes is no more hopeful than in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”  The spiritual insights with which Spielberg presents his stories are not only illuminating about humanity as a whole, but also reach into the depths of each of us as individuals.

At first, the opening scenes of the D-day invasion of Normandy he presents are so horrific as to be abhorrent.  It is not the film which is repulsive, but the war the film is depicting.  And though the film catches the sense of panic and shock through both the techniques of the camera-as-actor and the fear on the actors faces, they are not exaggerating the carnage it reveals.

This is the power of Spielberg’s work.  In such masterpieces as, “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad” and now “Saving Private Ryan,” the power is in the humanity presented without embellishment or avoidance.  We see ourselves more clearly when we’ve seen humanity through Spielberg’s eyes.

Despite its title, the central character of the film is Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks).  As a man of wisdom and courage, he is an English high school teacher who has been called to a duty both as distasteful to him as it is necessary.

Struggling with the morality of his responsibilities as a captain who has lost 94 men under his command, Capt. Miller explains to Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) that he tells himself that with every person he loses, he saves the life of 10 or 20 others.  He says, “at least that is how I rationalize it all.”

Though there are few who fought in World War II who did not have a pervasive sense that they were stopping a greater evil in the Nazism, the moral struggle is still present.

When is a life expendable?  Does it justify putting one person’s life in harm’s way to save the lives of 10, or 20?  Is it all about numbers?

This belief that a lesser evil, the loss of one life, is morally justified if it is used to stop a greater evil, thus saving many lives, is central to moral thought and is expressed by such concepts as St. Augustine’s “Just War Theology.” 

However, this common discussion of the morality of war is only the beginning place for Spielberg.  He reverses the question and asks:  Is it moral to lose the lives of eight men in order to save the life of one?

As the title implies, the one life that is to be saved is that of Private Ryan (Matt Damon).  Saving his life has suddenly become a moral imperative when the General in command of the American forces is informed that an Iowa family with four sons has lost three in the war, and the mother is going to get all three telegrams informing her of their deaths on the same afternoon.

He decides, against the counsel of his Colonel, to find Ryan and get him safely home.  This becomes the mission of Captain Miller.

The moral struggle of Miller’s squad is best expressed as they walk across a peaceful field in safe territory just before they go into the heaviest fighting in order to find this young private and attempt to save his life.  In the midst of many questions as to the sensibility and practicality of their mission, finally one man states:  “But we all have mothers.”

It is this observation on which the film rests.  If it is morally reprehensible to kill the last living son of four because of the incalculable grief his death would cause his mother, what makes it morally justified to kill any son?  Captain Miller answers the question with another question:  “is it the man, or the mission which is important?”

As we witness, the sacrifice becomes profound.  Everyone who gave their life for the sake of others becomes our own son, and we are touched deeply.

Captain Miller, reflecting on the cost in lives that it took to complete their mission reflects:  “Someday we may look back on this and think saving Private Ryan may be the only decent thing we did out of this whole God-awful mess.”

In the end, Miller’s parting words to Ryan are:  “Earn this day.”  It is a convicting statement to all of us to never forget how many have given their lives so that we might live.

“Saving Private Ryan” is a profound film worthy of thoughtful discussions among all of us.  If evil is going to continue to threaten our lives and our freedom, how and when do we respond?�

If others gave their life that you might live, what weight of responsibility does that put on you?  How do you ever repay such a gift?

Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 4 STARS, PROFOUND.