Through the course of this list, there’s been a number of war movies come up. Each of them has something to offer to a life-long civilian as a tool for understanding a soldier’s perspective – the duality present in humanity that emerges in wartime in Platoon, the shaping and battle-hardening of a person into part of the military machine in Full Metal Jacket, the callous and grand-scale loss of life in All Quiet on the Western Front, the boredom of warfare in Das Boot, the camaraderie between soldiers in The Great Escape, the madness of military thinking in The Bridge on the River Kwai. These are all aspects of war, but the one thing that occupies the largest space in our perceptions – and ironically, probably the thing that takes the least amount of objective time – is combat, with bullets flying and explosions roaring and every plan made before the first shot was fired falling apart and being reevaluated with shouts over the noise; the film that puts the civilian audience member in the heart of that combat, that shows warfare as a confusing, bloody mess, is Saving Private Ryan.
A small group of soldiers, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), are assigned to locate and retrieve a Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) to be relieved after his three brothers are all killed in action. The opening and climactic battle sequences are incredible in every sense of the word, let’s get that out of the way immediately: both each last for approximately a half-hour and are riveting through every second, a combined collection of small details that highlight the brutality, the randomness, the irony, the futility, and the heroism in war. The film obviously begs the question whether the lives of Miller and his men are worth that of Private Ryan, as they face substantial risk moving through German-occupied France to find him, and the answer is similarly obvious: it isn’t. The sacrifice these fictitious soldiers make to save a single man, no real difference from any other, is a reminder of the sacrifice every flesh-and-blood soldier makes. “Earn this,” are Captain Miller’s dying words to Private Ryan, a call divorced from country or creed to not forget what Steven Spielberg called “the most significant event of the last 100 years”, to live life in a way that honours the sacrifices so many made, because it’s so easy in the heat of the moment to forget.