The BEST: Saving Private Ryan

David Curwin Tradition Online | September 1, 2022

Summary: The 1998 film Saving Private Ryan first portrays the massive invasion of Normandy in World War II, and then turns to the story of a small unit led by Captain John H. Miller. The detachment is tasked with finding missing soldier James Francis Ryan, whose brothers were all killed in action. During the mission, as one might expect, Miller’s unit encounters both dangerous situations and ethical dilemmas. As a result of their determination and bravery, they do find Ryan, but in the ensuing confrontation with German troops, Miller is shot. Before he dies, he tells Ryan to “earn this” (the sacrifices made for his rescue). The movie ends 54 years later, with Ryan and his extended family visiting Miller’s grave.

Why this is The BEST: Saving Private Ryan can best be appreciated when contrasted with a genre of post-war movies exemplified by The Irishman (2019). That film tells the story of Frank Sheeran, aWorld War II veteran, who was working as a truck driver when he gets involved in the Mafia, eventually becoming a hitman. He develops a close relationship with union boss Jimmy Hoffa, but when Hoffa runs afoul of the mob, Sheeran is tasked with killing him. Despite their friendship, Sheeran does so. After the murder, Sheeran’s family recognizes his involvement in the crime, and severs ties with him. In the final scene, we find an elderly Sheeran in his nursing home room. The camera slowly pulls away from him, emphasizing how alone he is at the end of his life.

Watching these movies side by side highlights two contrasting ways to view the legacy of World War II. Both films portray episodes with grand historic significance. The invasion of Normandy turned the tide of the war; The Irishman implicates the mob (and Sheeran) in such events as John F. Kennedy’s election and assassination, and most centrally, the murder of Jimmy Hoffa. But the end of each film, with the perspective of decades after those pivotal events, implies that it was the protagonists’ private lives, not their public roles, that really mattered. Unlike Sheeran, we don’t know anything about Ryan’s life after the war. And yet, it is clear that he fulfilled Miller’s last wishes to “earn this,” by seeing him surrounded by his loving family. His life had justified Miller’s sacrifice simply through the mundane accomplishments of marrying, and raising children and grandchildren.

Sheeran’s life is more complicated. Although clearly involved in criminal activities, he is a sympathetic character. He displays loyalty to his “bosses,” and his friendship with Hoffa seems genuine. He never seeks out violence for the thrill of it, and earnestly tries to prevent Hoffa’s execution. Nonetheless, he can’t escape the repercussions of his deeds. In his last years, after his Mafia friends have all died, he reaches out again to his family. They want nothing to do with him. We, the viewers, have just watched over three hours of a compelling movie, full of historically impactful events in Sheeran’s life. So it is a shock to realize that he leaves no legacy and will remain forgotten.

The question of legacy has captivated humanity from time immemorial. And while Jewish tradition promises reward in the “World to Come,” it is the issue of posterity and commemoration in this world that directs the concerns of so many biblical figures. After the pinnacle of the Akeda, at the end of his life, Abraham turns to the practical question of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Isaiah is concerned with the fate of the childless eunuchs, promising them “a monument and a name, better than sons or daughters” (Isaiah 56:5). 

But the book perhaps most occupied with the question of aftermath is Kohelet, authored by King Solomon. Of all biblical figures, Solomon should have been the most secure in his legacy – he presided over a united kingdom, built the Temple, and possessed unprecedented wisdom. But in Kohelet, those provided no comfort to him: “Because the wise man, just like the fool, is not remembered forever; for, as the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten” (Kohelet 2:16).

Kohelet concedes that all these exceptional accomplishments are “utter futility” (havel havelim). So what does remain? How can one avoid falling into obscurity? The pessimistic Kohelet hints to an answer in his final verse, “When all is said and done: revere God and observe His commandments” (12:14). These should be goals for everyone, for privates just as for kings. 

We see that message play out in both Saving Private Ryan and The Irishman. Ryan and Sheeran both returned from the most dramatic war in history. One quietly raised a family who embraced him, the other led a tumultuous life, only to be shunned by his own children. If we want to “earn it,” then we must follow Ryan’s path: live a noble life which will inspire those who will come after us to do the same.

David Curwin writes about the Bible, Hebrew language, and Jewish thought in TRADITION and elsewhere, and is the author of an upcoming book on the messages of Kohelet. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

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