AFInity: Saving Private Ryan

By Kim Hollis

July 10, 2009

He's right to hate those Battlefield Earth people.

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Given the movie's 170 minute run time, the story is surprisingly simple. There's effectively nothing more to it than the search and rescue mission. Where it achieves its complexity is in the constant reminder of the moral dilemma at hand. The movie never tells the viewer how to feel about whether one man's life is worth risking so many, which is admirable. Such ambiguity is rare in Spielberg's work. Saving Private Ryan never pulls any punches, either. For all that I was prepared to be shocked and disturbed by the Omaha Beach scene, I was completely taken aback by how devastating the later scenes of the movie were. I won't give anything away - in case there are some who have missed the film up to now - but there is a death that I found so impacting and heart-rending that I felt a need to get up and walk away for a bit. Fortunately, since I was watching the movie from the comfort of my own living room, I was able to do just that.

I've been heaping tons of praise on Saving Private Ryan, and yet the honest evaluation is that it left me just a bit cold in the end. This is odd, because my complaints are fairly minor. Primary amongst these is my belief that the bookending opening/closing scene, featuring an elderly man who has returned to the scene of the battle, feels unnecessary and tacked on to appease test audiences. That willingness to allow the film to be ambiguous I spoke of before is compromised somewhat. Additionally, I found John Williams' score to be inappropriately light at times. It was oddly incongruous and would take me right out of the movie.


Perhaps my biggest issue is my feeling that the movie may have tried to pack too many characters into the mix, never allowing us to fully identify with any one of them. Even Upham, who serves as a surrogate for the viewer, is not someone whose motivations (and lack thereof) we completely understand. Thus, the impact is lessened when characters experience loss, or when they are injured or killed. I'm sure that Spielberg was playing with archetypes here, but I think this device plays out better in novels than it does in film.

Nonetheless, I understand and agree that Saving Private Ryan is an important American movie, one worthy of being on the AFI list. Spielberg's willingness to tackle the truths of war is not unprecedented, but it takes things many degrees further than most had been willing to go in the past. The film's moral issues stand apart, too. In most cases, I could see the producers/creators of a movie like this one making Private Ryan a heroic character, keeping us on pins and needles with concern for his welfare. Instead, we worry far more about the men tasked with saving him, to the point that we truly do wonder whether the sacrifices they make are worth sending him home to his family. These are the kind of issues that are worth pondering. And they're the sort of moral dilemmas that make war so unsavory.

Kim's AFInity Project Big Board

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