To be honest, I was jaded by the bandwagoning over this film. The mob mentality followed flag-waving mutual love for Saving Private Ryan from the moment it exploded onto the big screen. So, I skipped it. Too many older male teachers looked at me and said, “Earn this” as if it meant they’d nearly died to help me get my degree. I’ve seen that last few minutes in clips in so many classes and so many sermons, I assumed that everyone must be romancing the ideals of war somehow. I didn’t see American Sniper for the same reason. I didn’t want to somehow promote war by enjoying it.
I claimed this excuse: films are a passion, an escape, a joy for me. I’d rather rewatch a lovely story on DVD than be shocked or potentially harmed by the vicarious experience of torture. I live the movies I watch. I don’t sleep well for weeks after watching a horror movie. As a young girl, I knew was going to be the next meal of the T-rex after Jurassic Park. And my feet will never forget the sensation of trying on the glass slippers for the first time. I feel invincible after action movies, and so very thoughtful after solved crime dramas. I sob through too many films, even the happy bits. Somehow I feel that movies are made for me, about me. I learn, live by, quote, and internalize the messages of films. Filmmakers are teachers, like it or not. They persuade, preach, and perpetuate ideas that they too believe in. Perhaps I am the type of audience they make movies for. I care.
Spielberg called in the troops for this one. Every face under an Allied helmet seemed notable, famous, yet somehow fitting in this quintessential war flick. The actors vying for these roles must have known that Spielberg was making history…from history. Spielberg manages to give enough pause-to-breathe time as well as changes in scenery to make the journey on the shores and fields of France during WWII manageable, though I admit I had to mute and close my eyes many times just to stomach the horrors of war, even from my living room’s comfy chair.
The brilliance of Spielberg’s Private Ryan is that it seeks to tell the story from the inside and refuses the omniscient narration of wide angles. It’s a human interest story in POV, point of view. The audience is as surprised as the soldiers are when under fire. We suffer as they do. I watched it today for my friend Dan who served in Iraq. Dan is one of the kindest, most peaceful men I know. He loves his Bible and his wife, and he has always been a good friend to me. He has never talked about war, but it felt like he was there in this film. We were there together in the fox holes and behind barricades.
Just as the opening hook of the film “The Hurt Locker” shows a likable Guy Pierce calmly discussing basic human desires like food and sex, so Spielberg set audiences up to care about and relate to characters. We invest in them and in the film. If they want to live, we don’t want them to die. If the characters are cruel or insensitive, unrelatable or cold, audiences will often feel nothing. Heroes in film can also be too perfect to be likable, but it’s not the case with Hanks’s Captain character who is far from Christ-like. He makes bad calls and gut decisions. In front of the men, he seems callous, task-driven, even unfriendly at times. He refuses to offer personal information and keeps a kill count. But, something in him is reluctant, sorrowful, duty-bound. He leads, but from within as a do-er, a comrade, a man who misses home. Yet, we all know that he is willing to lay his life down for the mission. He is almost thrown by the concept in the line (and poster’s tagline) “This mission is a man.” In this way, he becomes the everyman. We know that we are flawed. We make bad calls and worry about the mission and the people we may bring down with us. We are Miller. We are Ryan. We were there on the battlefield with the men who died for us.
So today as I write this, on Memorial Day, when we who did not have to fight for freedom are called upon to remember those who did, I watched this film and thought it was beautiful. Gut wrenching, devastating, tragic, and awful, but true and real and necessary.
Admittedly moved, I left the movie on as it replayed.
The scene I may have liked most is the moment before the climax battle when Hanks finds a coffee machine and tries to make a cup while the men lounge in the sun listening to an Edith Piaf record. The interpreter tells the men what she is singing, calling the lyrics quite melancholy as they speak of a love she’ll never have.
I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet after Romeo finds out of a battle that his cousin fought that morning:
Oh me, what fray was here? Why then o brawling love, o loving hate, o anything of nothing first create, o heavy lightness, serious vanity, misshapen chaos of well seeming forms. Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, still waking sleep, that is not what this is!”
Shakespeare’s Romeo, like Piaf, discusses the oxymoronic nature of love that hurts, of love unrequited. But I would apply this speech to war in that it too dwells in both realms. They fought and died for love, killed for love. For love of life, of freedom, of family, of a world unbroken by tyranny. And for that they died. None of us can earn that. Earn life, love, freedom. That’s the beauty and irony of the Cross of Christ as well. He died to give life. He earned it so we wouldn’t have to.