Saving Private Ryan and the Moral Calculus of Human Life

[Note: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan turns 20 this year.]

Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are two sides of the same Spielbergian coin. Both films are about the moral calculus of human life, and how a few ordinary, flawed people responded to an extraordinary moment when this calculus turned deadly. List is the greater film, but Ryan is the more philosophical. Both movies put the same question to its characters: How much is one person worth? The answers in Schindler’s List are definitive; the answers in Saving Private Ryan are complex.

Ryan has been criticized as a pro-war film. Particularly in the aftermath of the Iraq war, there seemed to me a shift in critical opinion toward the film. It’s popular today to argue that the first 30 minutes of the movie—the astonishing and excruciatingly violent D-Day beach sequence—are truly great, but the rest is replaceable. I’m not so sure. What Spielberg accomplishes in Ryan is a spiritual biography of the American soldier. It’s not a pro-war film (no movie that sought to be pro-war would film anything close to that beach sequence), but it’s not an anti-war film either. As a documentary of war, Ryan dismantles the John Wayne/Golden Age of Hollywood delusion, and as a reflection on the value of human life in a world set to destroy it, it likewise challenges the cynicism and utilitarianism of the post-Vietnam mind. It is a great movie because it makes the audience small and the questions big.

The key moment in the movie is not the beach landing, but the scene in which Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) company nearly begins to kill itself, literally, out of fury and frustration at not having found Ryan. The company sergeant pulls a gun on a private who says he’s “done with this mission” and will not go further. Most of the men want to execute a German prisoner; the cowardly translator Upham wants to spare him. Miller angers the group by releasing the prisoner, forcing something to give. At the last moment Miller reveals something the soldiers say he’s never told them: where he’s from and what he does. The line “I’m a schoolteacher” breaks over the tension like water on a parched battlefield. It’s the film’s pivotal moment, wherein Miller permanently wins his men’s loyalty by revealing his inner conflict and family-ward sense of duty. That the stoic and courageous Captain is an English teacher from rural Pennsylvania is a beautifully poetic irony. It epitomizes Spielberg’s big idea. In this moment, Miller is not just a captain, he is America itself—killing and being killed, exercising his duty and yet feeling (as he puts it) further and further away from home with every successful shot.

Miller’s confession that he personally doesn’t care about Ryan is poignant. It de-romanticizes both him and his mission. He’s not Captain America; he’s just trying to return home to his wife. This is a brilliant portrayal of how ordinary people calculate the value of human life. Real human beings are not bottomless wells of altruism. We make moral evaluations based on what matters to us, what helps us, so to speak, get home.

This is a good lesson for the pro-life movement. Much pro-life rhetoric is far too stoic and hollow, as if the personhood of the unborn or the immigrant are mere intellectual exercises that people should “agree” with. Human lives, though, are not the point in and of themselves. Losing the religious edge to our pro-life worldview may briefly open doors for co-belligerency, but it risks veering into an inchoate “body-ism” that ignores the fundamentally spiritual character of human life. Often the American effort in WWII is mythologized as a group of utterly selfless men running heedless into battle merely for the sake of flag and country. This misrepresentation fails to take into account how wives, children, fathers, mothers, churches, and friends sturdy the soul in the face of catastrophe. This is also the formula for a dangerous mutation of “patriotism:” A nationalism made up of nothing but symbols and gestures, and utterly insensitive to the real people who make up one’s country (this is the “patriotism” of far too many conservatives right now).

In other words, one of the reasons Saving Private Ryan is so effective is that it strips muddy generalizations away from our moral calculus of human life, and reminds us that real people lay themselves down for others only when there is a love in the soul for something greater than life itself. Secular culture desires a directionless human love, an endlessly general affection for everything and everyone and nothing in particular. This isn’t the love of real people, or of real soldiers, or of real Christians. We are all trying to get back home. The question is how much we want to get back there, and what our path toward home goes through.

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