Not long into the central mission of Saving Private Ryan, which is set in the days after the Normandy landings in World War II, the group led by Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) comes across a French family in a bombed-out house. The civilians plead for the soldiers to take their crying daughter to safety. Miller warns them away, but Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) grabs her, saying the “decent thing to do” would be to take her to the next town. “We’re not here to do the decent thing, we’re here to follow fuckin’ orders!” Miller barks, taking the kid back from him. Seconds later, Caparzo is shot and killed by a German sniper.
Steven Spielberg’s film, which came out 20 years ago and won him his second Best Director Oscar, has the tony sheen of the stirring World War II movies he’s long cited as inspiration. It begins with a shot of a flapping American flag, is scored by John Williams at his most Copland-esque, and is focused on the uniquely humane assignment of rescuing a man whose three brothers all died in the line of duty (loosely based on a real incident in the war). But Saving Private Ryan is tinged with a sense of bitterness and pointlessness, as its heroes march through war-torn France to save a single person and wonder aloud whether it’s worth their time.
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.
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.
The sheer futility of Caparzo’s death is a solid example. In offering to take the French girl, he’s showing a sweet sort of bravado (it’s still one of Diesel’s best performances). He pays for it with his life, and as he dies, Carpazo tells his friend Wade (Giovanni Ribisi) to take a letter he had written to his father and copy it onto fresh paper, since he’s bleeding all over the original. Wade dutifully obliges, making sure a clean letter is sent, offering a more varnished truth.
Miller is seen by his fellow men as a cold-blooded terminator of sorts; he’s actually a Pennsylvania schoolteacher, who recognizes when Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) quotes Emerson at him. “War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man,” goes the line, but Spielberg isn’t so sure. He depicts Allied soldiers shooting Nazi soldiers who have already surrendered, or triumphantly screaming “Let ’em burn!” as they incinerate a bunker.
Upham at one point successfully argues for freeing a Nazi POW that his company wants to execute. But that moment of morality goes unrewarded and is later tainted—the POW ends up rejoining a German troop and killing one of Upham’s compatriots, a bleakly ironic reversal. In another scene, the company sorts through hundreds of dog tags looking for Ryan’s name, hoping he’s already dead and their mission can be called off. Even Miller joins in on the fun before Wade calls them off, pointing out the hundreds of shell-shocked Allied soldiers taking in the grim spectacle of the group’s search.
“When you end up killing one of your men, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two or three or 10 others, maybe a hundred others,” Miller confides to his right-hand man, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), after Caparzo’s death. “That’s how simple it is, that’s how you rationalize making the choice between the mission and the man.” He then charges Ryan with going home and curing a disease, inventing a better lightbulb, something to make all the carnage worth it. At the end of the film, we know only that he’s lived a good life, which is really the best Miller, and Spielberg himself, could have hoped for.