A persistent fascination in Spielberg’s career is the symbolic weight Americans can assign figures like Private Ryan (Matt Damon), who is one of millions sent to fight abroad but suddenly becomes something much more—a man who deserves saving because of the losses his family suffered. In Spielberg’s other historical epics of the ’90s, Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), he dramatizes a small part of a much larger issue, reckoning with the history of the Holocaust and slavery in America through very specific events. But while those are both films in which a small good is done to combat an unfathomable evil (Oskar Schindler saving thousands of Jewish lives, and the captives on La Amistad winning their freedom in court), in Saving Private Ryan it’s hard to tell what’s really being accomplished.
Read John Biguenet on coming to terms with the profound contradiction at the heart of Saving Private Ryan.
The film was released just as the new studio that Spielberg co-founded, DreamWorks, was beginning to find its legs in the market, and it was the highest-grossing domestic movie of 1998. He then took a three-year break, and returned with an even gloomier outlook than before. Many of his best films in the 2000s take the poppy optimism of his earlier works and curdle them slightly, like the existential sci-fi masterpiece A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report, and even the large-scale disaster movie War of the Worlds, which functioned as a broad 9/11 allegory.
Spielberg’s historical films—like Munich (2005), War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012), and Bridge of Spies (2015)—have the same conflicted viewpoint as Saving Private Ryan, full of admiration for the people at their center, but wondering at the ultimate value of their sacrifice. They’re also Spielberg’s best movies, while some of his sunnier efforts (like the bouncy comedy The Terminal, or his fourth Indiana Jones movie) fell noticeably flat.
Throughout Saving Private Ryan, Miller’s company frequently note the unfairness of eight people being sent to rescue one. By the end of the movie, most of Miller’s group has died in battle, though Ryan is indeed saved, and told by Miller to “earn” their sacrifice. The staggering metaphor of such a mission clearly appealed to Spielberg—the notion that amid all the atrocities of the conflict, the U.S. still could not stomach the raw indignity of a mother losing all four of her sons on the battlefield. It’s why he begins and ends the film with scenes of intense gore, including a stark 25-minute staging of the Normandy landings that astounded critics and audiences alike with its realism.
That opening sequence has been endlessly discussed, though its impact on the big screen cannot be overstated. It’s so well crafted that it dominates most cultural conversation about Saving Private Ryan, which is also best remembered for losing Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love at that year’s Oscars (they’re both great movies). But it’s not a straightforward Baby Boomer classic that simply salutes its heroes’ bravery. In the rest of the film’s nearly three-hour running time, Spielberg is wrestling with the ways that heroism was stretched, distorted, and at times destroyed by the horrors of the war.