How can one explain Spielberg's choice, in his film on the Holocaust, to make its hero a German profiteer and, in his film on slavery, to make its hero a white leader of a slave economy? Of course, a Jewish clerk in Schindler's List prods his German employer to outwit the Final Solution and an enslaved African in Amistad goads a white former president of the United States to outmaneuver the very legal system (dedicated, as it was, to the preservation of slavery) that his oath of office had sworn him to uphold and defend. But the director leaves no doubt as to which character is the central focus of the narrative conflict: Since monstrous systems of exploitation constrain both Jew and African from independent action, only the beneficiaries of those inhumane systems are capable of change and, thus, able to serve as the protagonists of these dramas. Though we may assume these two films are about suffering—and presented with the vivid depiction of cruelty a camera can offer, an audience may find it difficult to look beyond such graphic images of misery to another, subtler subject—Schindler's List and Amistad are, in fact, about guilt and responsibility. They are not, as many imagine, noble memorials to the millions of victims of the Holocaust and slavery; rather, they are agonized meditations on all of those somehow implicated in those vast human tragedies.
A similar, though much more complex, contradiction beats at the very heart of Saving Private Ryan and accounts for the dissonance noted by virtually every critic between the body of the film and its opening and closing. How can the sentimental tableau of a weeping old man, his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his grandchildren possibly serve as a fit conclusion to so savage and unsentimental a film?
Spielberg himself offered a clue when, continuing his conversation with those entertainment writers in Los Angeles, he described his father's own war stories: "I was supposed to wave the flag and be patriotic and say that without his efforts I wouldn't have the freedoms I had or even the freedom to have the bicycle I was riding." Only later did the director realize that it wasn't "a bunch of bunk he was telling me." John Miller, the high-school teacher from Pennsylvania, teaches Jimmy Ryan the same lesson.
Private Ryan, a dazed kid surrounded by the bodies of men who were absurdly ordered to their deaths to save him, is given the equally absurd command by the dying hero, Captain Miller, to "earn this" and must now bear the terrible, impossible order until his own death.
But don't we all struggle under Ryan's moral burden? And how can Ryan, or for that matter any of us, ever pay such a debt—and to whom? Spielberg had already once suggested the answer to that profound question. In the epilogue to Schindler's List, contemporary descendants of the Jews saved by Oskar Schindler process past his grave. Again at the end of Saving Private Ryan, as a grandfather and his son and grandchildren pay homage to those whose deaths we have just witnessed, the living are called not merely to bear witness to the achievement of fallen heroes; the living are, in fact, the achievement itself. Like Private Ryan, we cannot help but ask what we've done to deserve such sacrifice by others and beg their forgiveness for what we have cost them. And like James Ryan, all we can do to justify that sacrifice is to live our lives as well as we are able.