Saving Private Ryan as Tom Hanks's profound meditation on the nature and problem of big institutions
The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.
That Thing You Do! is a creampuff of a movie, delightfully light. But Hanks’s next movie, Saving Private Ryan (1998) is as substantial a film as he has ever made. Ryan is a landmark in many ways; it is widely regarded as the most graphic World War II movie ever made, and a film which, along with Schindler’s List (1994), stands among Steven Spielberg’s greatest accomplishments. For Hanks, who played the role of Army Ranger John Miller, Ryan further affirmed his place as the premiere American actor of his generation.
Ryan is also a pivotal movie for our purposes as well. To this point, we’ve been telling a story about a man show struggled to find professional security as an actor. Upon doing so, he began to make a series of movies that affirmed the power of institutions in the lives of ordinary people – pretty much the only kind Hanks ever plays (even those who aren’t are played as ordinary guys). He sometimes has shown us what happens when people fail to play a productive role within institutions, as in Philadelphia, Toy Story, and That Thing You Do! But beginning with Ryan, Hanks began to explore the moral dilemmas and problems inherent in the very nature of institutions themselves – in this case a vast and mighty institution known as the U.S. Army. This is a preoccupation that has marked his work ever since. But it’s important to add that this emerging spirit of critical inquiry is one of engagement, not skepticism. Hanks does not whitewash institutions. But he doesn’t reject them, either.
After a brief opening scene in which we see an old war vet James Ryan visiting to a Norman military cemetery with this family, Saving Private Ryan proceeds to one of the most grueling experiences in cinematic history: a 20-minute sequence depicting the Allied landing of June 6, 1944. It may be worth noting in this age of small-screen downloads and viewing that when Ryan was released in movie theaters, these combat scenes were almost overwhelming both visually and in terms of the noise. (Unlike horror movies that are less scary the second time around because you know what’s coming, I only had to steel myself further to sit through a second screening precisely because I did know.) Whether or not the movie had any details wrong – though one suspects that the production design was scrupulous in detail – the movie communicates the sheer terror of war in a way that is truly unforgettable.
Having demonstrated an almost ruthless ability to induce awe, Spielberg indulges what many consider his signature vice: sentiment. The action shifts to the War Department in Washington, where we see secretaries typing letters to be sent to grieving families. A sharp-eyed woman comes to a sudden realization that she brings to the attention of her superiors, one of whom is an officer who has lost an arm, presumably in combat. Three brothers named Ryan have all perished in combat – two on the beaches of Normandy, another in New Guinea – and a fourth is missing in action. The scene switches briefly to a scene straight out of an Andrew Wyeth painting, where a woman in a farmhouse comes to the gradual and terrible realization that the car in the distance will bring her news that she will not be able to take standing. The action then shifts back to Washington, where we are now in the office of George C. Marshall, who ran U.S. war operations in World War II. The handicapped officer notes that the fictive brothers have been split up in response to the real-life plight of the Sullivan brothers, five men who died after a naval engagement in the Pacific. He appears to want to send a rescue mission for the missing James Ryan, but another one notes that this would be a difficult and dangerous underaking whose likely result would be casualties in search of a man who’s likely to be one himself.
Because this is a Hollywood movie, Marshall proceeds to his desk and opens up a book. He pulls out a letter that he begins to read, which turns out to be one of the more famous documents in Lincoln lore, the so-called “Bixby” letter that Lincoln wrote a Union woman who lost four sons in the Civil War. Because it’s such a masterpiece (“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” he wrote, thanking her for having laid “so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom”) you kinda wish Spielberg would let up on the Coplandesque soundtrack for a minute. Marshall’s position is clear: the mission will go forward.
It falls into the lap of Hanks’s Captain John Miller, who we saw earlier in the movie moving his men successfully up the beach to disable a Nazi pillbox (we also see some atrocities committed by Americans who shoot surrendering Germans in their rage over what they have just endured). Miller puts together a team of eight men who will go into the German-infested countryside in search of Ryan.
As all these men – who, as per classic Hollywood war movie convention, are the usual mix of Southern boy, wiseacre Brooklynite, nervous intellectual, et. al. – recognize, this is a hideous undertaking. The intellectual, Upham (Jeremy Davies), an outsider to the company recruited as a translator, tries to fit in by engaging his new comrades, who regard his innocence as dangerous (he keeps unwittingly pointing his weapon at them). When another soldier, Private Richard Rieben (Ed Burns) points out the crazy math of sending eight men to rescue one Upham invokes Rudyard Kipling, which only invites greater scorn. When the medic (Giovanni Ribisi) points out that Ryan has a grieving mother, Reiben replies that they all have mothers – even, just possibly, Captain Miller.
The men seem to like and respect their commanding officer, who they treat with teasing that might well be regarded as insubordination by another man. But he spends some of his credibility with them by suggesting that the callow Upham might have a point:
MILLER: Upham’s talking about our duty as soldiers. We all have orders and we have to follow them, and supersedes all, including your mothers.
UPHAM: Yes sir, thank you sir.
REIBEN: Even if you think the mission is FUBAR [fucked-up beyond recognition]?
MILLER: Especially if you think the mission is FUBAR.
Hanks delivers this line with a puckish grin that speaks volumes. The character is making clear that he doesn’t agree with the mission any more than the men do, just as the actor is conveying the same message to the audience. This strategy is important in building credibility among skeptics in conveying honor for the concept of duty. It’s a tactic that’s all the more important because, strictly speaking, Miller’s logic could invoked by Nazis no less than their Allied adversaries. It’s the gestures – the easy humor, the facial expression, the willingness to tolerate a small but real deviance from strict military orthodoxy, all of which contribute to a powerful democratic spirit – that make the difference. It’s this gracefully calibrated measure of deference, both to his orders by men above him as well as to the feelings of men below him, that make Miller a talented leader.
This measure of ability and previously earned respect become crucial later in the movie when Miller faces a real challenge to his authority. He orders the reluctant men to lead a successful attack on German gun emplacement, but this small sideshow operation results in the death of their medic. Miller antagonizes them further, apparently fatally, when he releases a German that they’ve captured. Appalled and angry, Reiben announces he’s going to desert, which leads to a series overlapping recriminations and threats. Amid the noise, Miller chooses this moment to address questions that have been matters of such feverish speculation that the men had started a pool betting on the answers: where he’s from (Pennsylvania) and what he does for a living (high school English teacher). This stops them in their tracks, as do his memories of his former life, his desperate desire to go home, and his hope that a measure of mercy will make that possible – if not in any direct sense, than at least in allowing him to maintain a measure of humanity so that he will be able to truly live with his wife if he returns.
Miller will pay for that act of mercy – it happens so quickly amid so much other action at the end of the movie that it’s easy to miss – and the Parkinson-like hand-shaking he exhibits from the start of the movie casts doubt on whether he really ever will be able to go home again. Moreover, it’s one thing to pledge your own life; it’s another to pledge the lives of others. Some of his Miller’s charges pay for their loyalty with their lives. This is why, in the end, Miller commands the lost Ryan (Matt Damon) to “earn this” – to be worthy of the lives Miller, his men, and by implication, all the casualties of World War II gave their lives so that we, their literal and figurative heirs, may experience a new birth of freedom in the wake of Nazi threat.
In a 2001 essay on Saving Private Ryan, John Bodnar, a pioneering figure in the study of collective memory, argued that the film’s emphasis on patriotic sacrifice invoked the spirit of early World War II movies. He also argued that Ryan effaced more recent cinematic history, which tended to focus more on the personal cost of war and the fate of the individual. Yet what Bodnar termed a form of forgetting might be better described as a self-conscious attempt to resurrect a message that itself has been forgotten. In recent decades, the economic libertarianism of the right and the cultural libertarianism of the left have made it hard to even grasp, much less take seriously, an idea that individuals might take real and unrealized risks in the name of collectivities greater than themselves.
Saving Private Ryan is not only haunting because that we see many people die what more than plausibly can be considered senseless deaths. It’s also haunting in ways that the filmmakers themselves may not intend: I have to confess I found myself wondering, right along with Matt Damon’s old James Ryan, whether, on the basis of the well-scrubbed, not especially distinguished looking family that accompanied him, he really did “earn” the worthy life Miller demanded of him. To the degree that Spielberg &; Co. wants this and we fail to buy it, we may say the movie fails. But our very desire, even urgency, to see a life as a “good buy” may itself be part of our collective existential malaise. Alternatively, we can perhaps take solace in notion of any life, even those as unremarkable as those of the Ryans, as precious. Either way, the movie asks us to remember – even amid justified skepticism that may lead us to make different choices to the degree that we have choices to make – that our lives are finally shaped by collective forces that matter more than our wishes or even our will. By the end of his life, so vividly evident in his Second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln knew this. by the time his career reached its apogee, in a figuratively less, but literally more dramatic way, Tom Hanks did, too.
Coming Next: You've Got Mail and Cast Away
Coming Next: You've Got Mail and Cast Away