What if an experienced squad is sent behind enemy lines to find and bring back a soldier in the middle of World War II?
This movie is graphically brutal: every body part that can be shot, vaporized, burned or mutilated gets such treatment. But behind the surface there is a series of moral dilemmas and statements that will make you think.
**Warning: spoiler alert**
What does Saving Private Ryan say about life?
The story starts and ends in a cemetery and, near the end of the movie when Capt Miller is dying, he asks Ryan to live a worthy life. So obviously the movie is trying to show us what that a worthy life means.
During the movie Miller faces multiple moral dilemmas, some examples: he has to follow non-sensical rules, he risks his squad’s life going out of their way to kill a dangerous enemy sentry so that they won’t kill fellow American soldiers, he lets a prisoner of war escape when nearly everyone else in the squad wants to kill him and he needs to find a solution to rescuing Ryan when he doesn’t want to be taken away from the battlefield. Living a worthy life seems to mean upholding certain values even when your life is on the line.
I took all the movie’s chaos, randomness and violence of war to represent life: things happen that make no sense or are unjust or painful. We try to rationalize them (Miller justifies deaths of soldiers under his command by assuming that he saves 10 lives for every soldier he loses) but in the end this is just a way of coping with reality.
Besides Miller’s dilemmas what does the movie say about specific virtues? Caparzo dies trying to save a little girl that reminded him of his cousin, so mindless compassion isn’t good because it gets you killed. Horvath, Miller’s friend, dies in the final battle. Reiben, self-interested and arrogant, survives. Jackson, the deadly sniper who recites Bible verses before taking every shot, is pulverized by a tank while he’s camping at the top of a church tower. Wade, the medic who throughout the movie desperately tries to save lives, dies after bleeding out from the nastiest wound that the team suffers. Upham survives but the movie shows him as a sensitive person who wants to do the right thing but lacks the courage and moral strength of Miller: he is unable to shoot Germans soldiers that end up killing his teammates and eventually he kills a German soldier that, earlier in the movie, he defended and prevented the rest of the team from killing.
Of the original squad of eight the only two survivors are the coward and the selfish. The movie appears to be saying: those values may prolong your life but that kind of life isn’t worthy.
Ryan, who doesn’t want to abandon the battlefield because he thinks it’s unfair to his team, also survives. At the end of the movie, when he’s in front of Miller’s grave he states, tearfully, “I’ve tried to live a good life”. When he asks his wife if he has been a good man his wife replies affirmatively. Which reinforces the movie’s idea that happiness consists on living a good life.