Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) does not pull any punches when it comes to the realities of war. Besides the infamously realistic and graphic opening battle scene, the film contains numerous instances highlighting the insanity of what it is portraying. Soldiers are shown mercilessly executing their surrendering enemies, jokes are made about said occurrences, and as the film progresses the humanity of all of the characters involved erodes away. Amongst all of the despair that the film demonstrates to the audience is a cast of characters whom are all looking salvation and redemption in one form or another. Glory in war does not exist in Saving Private Ryan, and replacing it is a sense that none of the actions that are being committed are redeemable in any way. For the men whom are tasked with finding and ensuring the safety of Private Ryan (Matt Damon), this task ranges from being an annoyance and waste of resources to a chance at once again being the person they were before they became soldiers. Saving Private Ryan explores the possibility of finding redemption among the horrendous and incomprehensible, while not offering any easy answers as to whether or not this is even possible.
Chief among those searching for redemption is Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). A veteran of numerous battles and mostly enigmatic for most of the film, the Captain says little about who he was before the war in an attempt to keep the two worlds separate. It is only when he witnesses the complete breakdown of the humanity of his own unit that he says what he did before the war, and even then the information is sparse. The Captain recognizes, more than anyone else around him, what the war is doing and has done to those that are partaking in it. First evidenced by his reaction to the shooting of unarmed Germans of the beaches of Normandy, the Captain’s response is telling of his experiences. Already desensitized when the film begins, he is not shocked or shaken by anything that occurs until the confrontation with the German machine gun encampment that takes the life of Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). But though the horrors of war have certainly changed the Captain forever, it is eventually revealed that his dedication to his mission of finding Ryan is not due to any sort of loyal to the army; but rather, a search for a chance to be the man he once was again.
In addition to the Captain, the company of men that follow him, mostly to their respective deaths, are made up of men that are all holding some sense of the persons that they were before the war. But these recollections hardly, if ever, serve those that hold them well, and in many cases they do quite the opposite. Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is killed as he feels an emotional attachment to a young French girl that reminds him of his niece. The human sensitivity that Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) still holds results in the death of Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg) and even the Captain, as he is either too terrified to act in the former case or argues against the execution of a captured German soldier (Joerg Stadler) in the latter. As for the latter instance, it is in this moment that the humanities of all of the men are called into question. It is only Upham who argues against committing what would be a war crime, and his fellow soldiers deride him for it. Ultimately, the Captain decides to allow the German to live, but in the conclusion of the film he is fatally shot by this same soldier. Saving Private Ryan contains many such instances of these no-win situations as it demonstrates a world where insanity is the most common feature.
But perhaps the mission of bringing Private Ryan home safely can offer some form of sense in the world. This is not the case for many of the soldiers though, as they see this mission as an unnecessary risk to all of their lives. Ryan is nothing more than a single man, and his life cannot possibly be worth more than theirs. This sentiment is not inherently wrong, and Ryan justifies it in the final act of the film as he refuses to leave his fellow soldiers behind for his own safety. But for the Captain, Ryan becomes, and is, a chance at a return to his life that he lost when he became a soldier. Ryan the person does not matter to the Captain outside of what he represents as an enigma. The Captain never gains this return, as he dies in the film’s final battle, and instead he passes on the weight of the mission to Ryan. “Earn this,” he tells Ryan, referring to the deaths that have accrued in the single effort to save him. But though this is a powerful final sentiment, it is profoundly unfair to Ryan. Ryan did not ask to be what he is, and his only crime in the film is his loyalty. Despite this, he is punished for his actions, as the final scene of the film reveals Ryan to be the old man visiting the Normandy memorial, still unsure of whether or not he deserves the life that he has been given.
Saving Private Ryan succeeds in presenting a complex view of World War II to the point that the actions of its characters, most of which are on the side of the Allies, are called into question. The mission to save Ryan is never definitively stated as to be a good thing, and in the end it costs more lives than it saves. But once Ryan secured, the hardest message that the film contains is brought on as the Private is tasked with earning the life that so many have given their own to give him. But underneath all of this is the sense that the humanities of all of these men have been lost. Upham ultimately kills the German that he once argued for the salvation of as he is surrendering. The film establishes that war is horrendous, but Saving Private Ryan takes the additional steps to show that none of the men will ever be the same again, and many of them were already irrevocably changed by the time the film began. Ryan may be presented to the men as a chance at salvation, but ultimately he is nothing more than a man. Those who sought such by him die, and he is left haunted by the knowledge of this sequence of cause and effect. Saving Private Ryan does not allow any of its characters to escape the film unscathed in one way or another, and ultimately it establishes that salvation for any of these characters was likely never obtainable.