AFInity: Saving Private Ryan
By Kim Hollis
July 10, 2009
Given what I'd heard about Saving Private Ryan, I had reason for trepidation. Whenever I heard friends discuss the movie, the conversation always turned to the intensity of the opening segment. I understood that it was exceptionally graphic and disturbing. Thus, I was well prepared for what I was about to see in the first 24 minutes.
Perhaps I was ready for the worst, because while I'll certainly agree that the Omaha beachhead assault scene was depressing, overly realistic and a grim reminder that war truly is hell, it wasn't as devastating as I feared it would be. I don't know what I was expecting instead, but I imagine that trends like torture porn in horror movies and the emergence of police procedurals as a genre on television have desensitized me to the violence to some degree. What a difference ten years makes.
Of course, this opening scene is effectively just setting the stage for what happens in the rest of the movie, and it succeeds in this regard. The scenes of combat are merciless in their assault on the senses, and we feel real pain for the individuals who were involved in the real-life battle. It also serves to remind the viewer that war means injury, and war brings death. We see the staggering number of casualties and realize that in some cases, the men sent on this mission never stood a chance at surviving.
The transition to the story's set-up, then, is fairly natural. We learn that three brothers have been killed within a few days of each other, and their mother will receive her notification about all of them on the same day. She has only one son still alive - the titular Private Ryan - and General George C. Marshall places orders that the young man be found and sent home immediately. There's some argument amongst the officers as to whether this is the wisest course of action, but in the end, it is determined that losing four sons is too much for one family to bear.
This question is raised again and again throughout the film, albeit in different ways. In addition to the exposition from the officers making the decision about Ryan's future, it's also subtly ingrained in us from the movie's beginning. After all, we see the death of thousands of men at Saving Private Ryan's opening. Why is their sacrifice less significant than that of the Ryan family?
In addition to establishing the movie's moral middle, that Omaha Beach opening is also critical in that it shows us the tactical and personnel-relations capabilities of Captain John H. Miller, portrayed by Tom Hanks. He manages to survive the initial onslaught, and cobbles together some remaining soldiers to break through the German defenses, allowing them to escape the beach. His competence and strategic aptitude are evident in this first scene, and will carry on throughout the film.
It's important to establish this element of Captain Miller's character right away, because he is the heart of Saving Private Ryan. It is Captain Miller who receives the orders to organize a group of elite men to go rescue Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) and bring him back to headquarters so he can be sent home. Even if the captain doesn't agree with the notion that one man might be more deserving of going home than another, he feels that completing the mission brings him one step closer to going home himself, and that is the reason to keep pressing forward.