While Saving Private Ryan shows very vividly the horrors of war, this is not the main idea of the movie. The fictional story primarily revolves around Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squad who are sent behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have been killed in combat. The main question raised is why eight men are risking their lives to save just one? As the movie progresses, we see this debate on several occasions.
First, we see General George Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, order a rescue squad be sent in to find Ryan and “get him the hell out of there.” One member of his staff objects and claims that any members of a rescue squad would be killed trying to retrieve Ryan.
Secondly, we see the rescue squad itself debate the issue when the squad first embarks on its mission. Private Reiben (Edward Burns) inquires, “You wanna explain the math of this to me? I mean, where's the sense of riskin' the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?” In response, Captain Miller replies that soldiers must follow orders even if one believes the mission is “fubar.” He goes on to tell Reiben, tongue in cheek, that the mission has a valuable objective and that he feels heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private Ryan. At this point, we begin to see Captain Miller struggle with the issue of obeying orders when he's not convinced of the wisdom of those orders, and we are uncertain about his true beliefs regarding the worthiness of the mission.
Third, we see the squad encounter Captain Hamill (Ted Danson). Hamill states to Captain Miller that he understands their mission and tells them to find Ryan and get him home. The following scene shows Captain Miller debating the mission with his second in command, Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore). Miller says that Ryan had better be worth their efforts to find him; Ryan better cure some disease or invent the longer lasting light bulb because he would choose just one of the soldiers he has already lost over ten Ryans. Thus, we see Miller struggling even more with the wisdom of his orders
Next we see Reiben’s frustration with the mission finally spilling out after Wade is killed. He mocks Captain Miller’s decision to attack a German outpost and says that he hopes Mama Ryan is proud that her son’s life is worth more than the lives of two other soldiers. In order to diffuse the situation Captain Miller says he doesn’t care anything about Private Ryan. But if saving Private Ryan earns him the right to return home then he will carry out his mission. Thus, we now see Captain Miller seeking some sort of justification for his mission.
Finally, the squad finds Private Ryan and breaks the news to him of the deaths of his brothers. In a surprising twist, Ryan refuses to leave. He refuses to follow Miller’s orders and instead chooses to follow the orders given, which was to hold the bridge at all costs. Miller decides to stay and help the soldiers hold the bridge and then get Ryan back to safety. After the final battle is over only two members of the original eight sent out to rescue Ryan survive. Just before he dies, Miller says to Ryan, “earn this.” In other words, make the mission worth the sacrifice.
As much as I love this movie, it never answers the fundamental question raised throughout the film: was saving Private Ryan worth the sacrifice? Were the lives of six American soldiers worth the life of James Francis Ryan from Iowa? The movie concludes with Ryan as an old man visiting Miller’s grave. He asks his wife if he has been a good man and she replies that he has. Is this supposed to be Ryan’s way of making the mission worthwhile? Did simply being a good man throughout his life earn the sacrifice that was given on his behalf? What would the other six soldiers have done with their lives? Would one of them have found the cure to cancer? Would one of them have had a greater impact on the world for good than Ryan did? Imagine having to live your entire life proving that you were worth the death of six other people.
Most movies answer the main question they raise one way or another. For example, in Schindler’s List, another Steven Spielberg movie, the question raised is what is the value of a person as compared to property? The movie very clearly answers that people are more valuable than property by showing Oscar Schindler looking at his car and his ring and realizing how many people he could have saved if he had sold that property. In Saving Private Ryan, the question raised is what is the value of a person as compared to another person(s)? Again, I don’t believe the movie actually answers this question. I would have preferred that Saving Private Ryan answer the question and then let me decide whether I agree or not. I suppose one could argue that not answering the question is a creative technique to get people to discuss the film but it left me somewhat unsatisfied.
Nevertheless, as you wrestle with this question, also wrestle with the questions underneath the main question. First, how do we measure the worthiness of a life? Second, do we value some people over others and if so, why?
Copyright 2008, Ryan Blue