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June 6, 2009

The Salvation of Private Ryan, D-Day; 2009

June 6, 2009 | By | No Comments

Following is a movie review by Your Business Blogger(R) originally published by the Scripps Howard News Service. Get updates on Twitter.

WHY SAVING PRIVATE RYAN FALLS SHORT

By JOHN WESLEY YOEST JR.

“Please tell me I’ve been a good man,” Private Ryan tearfully begs his wife when, as an old man, he visits the grave of the man who died for him. “Tell me I’ve led a good life.”

Well frankly, Ryan, your life probably wasn’t all that special. At least not good enough for another man to die in your place. No man is “good enough,” no man is truly worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. In his heart, Ryan knows this. And so do we.

But as Hollywood prepares to honor the depictions of sacrifice in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s worth reflecting on true worth of that ultimate gesture. …

…There is an Unknown God that we all seek. Speilberg was on to truth in depicting Captain Miller as “the teacher,” a rabbi, a Christ-figure. In its final moments, the movie reveals its allegory of man’s yearning for Christ. Only in this context does “Saving Private Ryan” make sense. Private Ryan cheated death, but he didn’t cheat eternity. Was he good enough? No man is good enough.

In the end, Ryan falls to his knees before his savior’s grave feeling his unworthiness. Asking in anguish the movie’s central question: was I worthy? The only answer Speilberg leaves us with is a silently waving flag and Ryan’s hollow cry … I tried to be a good man! The difference between saying “I was a good man” and admitting, “I am not worthy” may seem slight. But traversing the chasm between the two provides the true liberation Ryan was seeking.

In Spielberg’s movie, Ryan is saved by Everyman. But the captain’s grave provided no ultimate answers. For salvation, Ryan should have kneeled before an empty grave.

Read the rest at the jump.

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Thank you (foot)notes:

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Originally published by

the Scripps Howard News Service

Also titled

The Salvation of Private Ryan by Jack Yoest, The Virginian Pilot.


Witness the outpouring of collective grief over the deaths of the two police officers gunned down in the nation’s Capitol. They immediately became true heroes because their lives were given so that others might live.

In the face of a sacrifice so precious, we struggle to express the full measure of honor due such men. We lower our flag. The sound of a mournful bugle playing taps carries heavily through too-still air. We know we are not worthy.

This is why the beginning of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” with its slow pan of the white crosses at the top of the Normandy cliffs, is so powerful. The movie is a tribute, a way of paying homage to those men.

And this is why the ending of “Saving Private Ryan” is so stupefying and rings so false. Ryan may have lived a good life, but “there is none worthy, no not one.”

“Saving Private Ryan” is a curious mixture of truth and falsehood. Like a high quality counterfeit bill, the movie looks like the real thing. Judged on its technical merits, it is simply breathtaking. Veterans are stepping forward to say, finally, a movie that shows the truth about the war.

Nevertheless, there is a subtle, but critical falsehood buried beneath the cinema verite. The movie’s star, Tom Hanks, commented that viewers looking for a straightforward war flick suddenly find themselves immersed in much more. Indeed, this movie takes on some of the weightiest theological issues.

Spielberg wrestles with the question of the worth of a man. War provides the perfect context to ask about the value of an individual life: when is it worth dying for someone? Sadly, Spielberg has the bravado to ask the question, but not the courage to seek real answers. The best method of determining a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill is to know what the genuine bill looks like, to know the truth.

But in our postmodern I’m OK, you’re OK age, Spielberg can’t face the truth about Ryan, and about himself. No one is ever worthy. Facing that truth brings a man up against a need that goes beyond physical “saving”: his existential need for salvation.

The movie ends, lamely, trying to convince itself and us that the sacrifice was worth it. Ryan asks the pivotal question, “Why was I saved? Was my life good enough?” Spielberg, the High Priest of Entertainment, has no answer. Without an external yardstick for measuring good, our generation is left with no standard. All good is relative and each individual becomes a demi-god unto himself. And so, the “greatest war movie of all time,” becomes a shallow paean to humanism and a deification of the self.

Still, the truth is difficult to escape. In fact, the movie is ultimately a monument to Spielberg’s Unknown God.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had a god on every corner. There were idols devoted to the gods of sex, love, rock-n-roll and, of course, war. Today’s secular temple, the multiplex, is little different. Today’s moviegoers have found religion before the silver screen, today’s altar. We, too, pay weekly tithe in popcorn to the gods of sex, violence and greed on the big screen.

However, when he visited Athens, the Apostle Paul commented on their curious altar built for “the Unknown God.” The Athenians had their counterfeit gods but still knew that something was missing. They knew in their hearts that there was a truth that they missed. So they built an altar. Spielberg made a movie.

A movie depicting the violence and horror of war quickens our pulse and artificially brings us close to death _ the better to deal with crossing the line “from here to eternity” and facing our own unworthiness. We are looking for absolution, searching for salvation.

The adrenaline rush brings us to the edge of life and death, and we confuse proximity with truth.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin has said that human beings are mesmerized by car wrecks and thrilled by rollercoasters because fear of our mortality makes us fascinated by brushes with death. Rubbernecking at wrecks, enjoying thrill-rides and surviving a Spielberg Surround Sound war movie, make us feel we have cheated death up close.

Similarly, we are fascinated by a love, or a duty, which embraces death. The effects in “Private Ryan” are without a doubt spectacular. So, too, were the effects on the movie “Titanic.” But just as Leonardo di Caprio’s sacrifice for Kate Winslet propelled “Titanic” into the record-books, the sacrifice at the heart of “Private Ryan” makes it compelling.

There is an Unknown God that we all seek. Speilberg was on to truth in depicting Captain Miller as “the teacher,” a rabbi, a Christ-figure. In its final moments, the movie reveals its allegory of man’s yearning for Christ. Only in this context does “Saving Private Ryan” make sense. Private Ryan cheated death, but he didn’t cheat eternity. Was he good enough? No man is good enough.

In the end, Ryan falls to his knees before his savior’s grave feeling his unworthiness. Asking in anguish the movie’s central question: was I worthy? The only answer Speilberg leaves us with is a silently waving flag and Ryan’s hollow cry … I tried to be a good man! The difference between saying “I was a good man” and admitting, “I am not worthy” may seem slight. But traversing the chasm between the two provides the true liberation Ryan was seeking.

In Spielberg’s movie, Ryan is saved by Everyman. But the captain’s grave provided no ultimate answers. For salvation, Ryan should have kneeled before an empty grave.

(John Wesley Yoest Jr., a former captain in the Army and the son of a World War II veteran, is [the former] assistant secretary of health and human services for the commonwealth of Virginia.)

Scripps Howard News Service

18-MAR-99

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