MANY SPOILERS BELOW
The movie begins with an apology.
The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan begins with the World War II veteran walking the cemeteries of Normandy with his family. He walks ahead in solitary remembrance ahead of his family. He is isolated from them in a way that can never really be bridged. He lived through something they will never fully understand. As he walks, his son takes a photo and is promptly chastised. This is Spielberg's Mea Culpa to his audience. This is him acknowledging that he is only the photographer standing on hallowed ground. While he wants to honor the memory of the heroes, he is someone who is forever on the outside of the Greatest Generation.
It has been nearly 25 years since this movie came out and it has lost none of its power. To this day, it is considered the gold standard of modern war movies. You also see all of Spielberg's skills as a director on display. I am convinced that he won his 2nd Directing Oscar on the strength of the Normandy Invasion scene, and it is well deserved.
Very few movies have made me feel viscerally transported somewhere. The storming of the beaches as presented in the movie is forever burned in my mind. With no musical fanfare, gone is the illusion of any kind of glossy glory. The opening dutch angle shot of the beach lets you know that you are about to enter a nightmare, from which you may not emerge. But the only way to survive is forward. Spielberg pulls no punches with that first moment the doors are lowered and have the transport boat is immediately mowed down by machine gun fire. What follows is 20 minutes of the most riveting cinema in movie history.
At the front of it all is Tom Hanks, giving one of the best performances in an already amazing career. This would be the first time Hanks and Spielberg would work together and they would continue on with five collaborations so far. Hanks gives a powerful and restrained performance that is a master class in stillness. The final shot of Hanks at the end of that D-Day sequence is a marvel as the Spielberg trusts the actor enough to push the camera in so closely to his eyes.
The trust between director and actor can be seen in many little moments. When Hank's Capt. Miller goes to report to the Colonel, you can see how he gazes at the unfair luxuries that certain soldiers get while he has to shut up and follow orders.
The battle scenes are not the only places where Spielberg uses his talents. Go back and watch the scene where Ryan's mother receives the notifications of her sons' deaths. You see the brilliant use of reflection in the window and Spielberg's affinity of the single shot and it pans across and perfectly frames the event without a single word being said. Notice too the contrast in color palate. Home is this golden, heavenly place that is only dreamt of while living in the blue, drab nightmare of war. This is summed up in that amazing silhouette shot of Miller standing by the barbed wire facing the tree. That pastoral home life is so close and yet so far.
This movie also shows how Spielberg is a master of scale and detail. He is able to convey the immensity of the Allied forces in a simple exposition scene between Miller and Sgt. Horvath (Tom Siezmore). And even in the chaos, he will add extremely detailed moments that you will miss unless you do careful repeated viewing. One of my favorites is a moment where battle medics are trying to save the Battalion surgeon. One of the medics gets shot through the canteen. The water begins to spill out, but then blood begins to flow. The medic does not fall down in agony, but simply gets some bandages and tries to staunch his own bleeding.
The biggest flaw of the movie is that it is just a bit too long. This is the beginning of Spielberg's inability to edit himself. Some scenes drag out a bit and the final battle needs to be cut down by about 7-10 minutes. Yet you can understand this flaw, because there is still so much that is good in those scenes that should have found their way on the cutting room floor.
Even returning to the title, there is a great deal revealed. This isn't called Band of Brothers or Fighting the War or anything like that. The verb is "saving." When Spielberg talks about the World War II veterans he honors them by saying that they were the ones who ended the Holocaust. And also notice that it isn't just saving "Ryan," but saving "Private Ryan." The title goes out of its way to inform you of his rank, the lowest there is. All of the blood and sacrifice is to save one man. It is reminiscent of the themes of Schindler's List which asks how much is a person's life worth.
We, of course, are partially represented by Ryan. The soldiers of the of World War II gave everything to save our lives. And Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat make sure not to present them as simply brave and heroic. These are average, everyday flawed young men who were forced to do a terrifying thing to save the world. They are not saints. But Spielberg recognizes in them the courage that earned their generation the title of greatest.
This movie once again shows how Spielberg is a humanist in the best sense of the word. He is able to show the humanity in all people. Even the German sniper who targets our heroes has a few close-ups where we can see the look of fear and concern on his face and not that of a monster. After another German soldiers slowly impales one of our heroes with his own knife, Spielberg allows us to see the disgust that fills him at the heinous act he commits. And Spielberg once again shows such respect for religion in a way that few modern filmmakers do. The crosses and stars of David filmed with great respect. We get to see soldiers praying, kissing their crosses, quoting scripture, and we see brave priests hearing battlefield confessions. Spielberg shows us the fullness of the human experience in these extreme moments.
The world of Saving Private Ryan is one that is unfair. You could be saved by a bullet one second to be killed by one seconds later. Compassion can be your end. As Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is moved to save a little girl, it costs him his life. We see the same thing in Capt. Miller's decision with the soldier who killed Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). In regards to the second case, there is no question it was the right thing to do, but in a world of war and injustice, the right thing can get you killed. I amazed at the way Spielberg films the moment Miller gets shot. It is done at such a distance that I imagine that many people may have missed it the first time. But we see Miller from the point of view of "Steamboat Willie," the German soldier. From his point of view, he cannot see the man who spared his life. Through the fog and distance of war, he only sees an enemy to be killed.
For me though, the most impactful moment is the final moments of Miller on the bridge. As the German tank begins to roll up, Miller takes out his pistol and he begins firing. He does not fire in a blind rage. Nor are his eyes filled with tears of sadness. He simply does his soldier's duty and fires. As a soldier and as a man he will fight until the end, though he has no hope.
But when the tanks are destroyed you can see the look of relief and joy on Miller's face. This comes not from hope for life, for he knows he is going to die. But now he knows that he did not die in vain. By defending the bridge he helped win the war. And then he grabs Ryan and says "Earn this!" That is Spielberg's message to all of us. Earn the peace that was paid for by the blood of these brave soldiers. Miller finds peace in death, as we can see with his no-longer-shaking hand. The shot immediately then cuts to Ryan's hand. The responsibility of the saving the world now falls to us.
When Ryan has to face the question of whether or not he has earned it, the most important thing to him is the question of his moral goodness. He turns to his wife and says, "Tell me I'm a good man... Tell me I've lived a good life." The greatest thing we can do to honor the sacrifice of others is to use our lives to make the world a better place. It does not seem like Ryan cured some disease or invented a longer lasting light bulb. But he earned their sacrifice by moral goodness.
The movie begins and ends with the American Flag. This is a story that is deeply patriotic. It is an unflinching look into the horrors of war. But it is also a mediation on the men who had to march into that hell for us. And when we watch films about these men, even fictional ones like Saving Private Ryan, the movie reminds us that we stand on hallowed ground.