"Saving Private Ryan" Throwback Review
French film critic and director (The 400 Blows), François Truffaut, touted that America was incapable of making a film that didn’t glorify war, specifically saying that “there is no such thing as an anti-war movie.”
Considering the films that were being produced around his time, it's easy to see why Truffaut would have that opinion. Henry Fonda and John Wayne were starring in films such as The Longest Day, The Green Berets, and The Dirty Dozen, which depicted strong, strapping men leading their troops into heroic battle to topple tyranny. Those movies made kids want to be soldiers, as reality was replaced with spectacle.
Unfortunately, Truffaut died in 1984, just before Oliver Stone had his one-two punch of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, and Steven Spielberg delivered the definitive American World War II film in Saving Private Ryan.
The firm ideals of bravery and good ol' American patriotism are not traditionally found within Saving Private Ryan. Instead, Spielberg, along with screenwriter Robert Rodat, offers something not usually found within a war film: humanity. While still an action film at its heart, the mind of the film is centered on philosophy, as opposed to pure entertainment. The titular mission of extracting Pvt. James Ryan isn't an honorable one. It doesn't take a genius to see the flawed math of risking the lives of eight men to save one. Spielberg and Rodat don't dance around that thought, and also find time to analyze the themes of doing your duty and the futility of war.
None of this is to say that the men in this movie aren't brave. It takes a lot of guts and courage to do what they did, which is why we have a day to honor them. But they don't carry out their mission out of their love for the stars & stripes. They do it because they have to. It's an order, and orders must be followed.
There's a character named Upham within the film. He's the squad translator and doesn't have the same fighting spirit as the rest of his fellow compatriots. There are times when you get mad at him for not being tough or getting the job done flawlessly. But I would bet many of us would be more like him than John Wayne when the time comes.
Within the film, there are no individual heroes, only real men fighting to keep themselves alive for just another moment. The opening set piece is one of the greatest ever produced, with chaotic camerawork, editing, and sound design. It's no wonder no film has attempted to portray D-day since, as Spielberg has set the bar at an unassailable height.