A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this is Steven Spielberg's most violent film, especially in the opening 25-minute D-Day invasion massacres. There's no sugar-coating, no "cartoon violence," no nameless, inconsequential casualties like LucasFilm Imperial Stormtroopers. This is unrestrained, ugly, and dirty combat, meant to make the viewer appreciate the monstrous human cost and tragic sacrifice of the Allied beachhead -- a price mostly paid by young men. Stunned, vengeful U.S. soldiers are seen committing what would be considered atrocities (shooting surrendering Germans, as well as innocent non-Germans who can't speak English). Even though characters are religious -- one prays fervently before killing with his sniper skills -- everyone swears a lot, too. Some "special editions" carry supplementary documentary material, including clips of Steven Spielberg's own 8mm war movies he made as a kid.
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What's the story?
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN opens with a harrowing, blood-soaked depiction of the WWII Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Countless young men are cut down, turning the ocean red. When the smoke clears from the worst of D-Day, we meet the characters. Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) gets orders to lead his platoon into a dangerous zone swarming with Germans, to find a low-ranking soldier named James Ryan. Ryan was one of several brothers who went to war, and all the others are now dead. The U.S. top brass believes the Ryan family has suffered enough, and that their remaining son should be brought home safely. While it's a mission of "mercy," it's going to cause the Americans even more danger and death, with no perceptible strategic goal. A prologue and epilogue are set in a present-day cemetery -- with acres and acres of graves to mark the dead. And it pretty much asks the viewer what the soldiers ask themselves: if rescuing one man was worth all this carnage.
Is it any good?
The opening D-Day scene is not exploitation, but rather a master filmmaker's true-life recreation of one of the bloodiest battles in human history, to make one appreciate the bravery and the loss. Star director Steven Spielberg, who sought the input of war historians and survivors to make Saving Private Ryan as authentic as possible, tries to show the viewer, after decades of restrained and bloodless Hollywood-backlot war movies, propaganda flag-wavers, and fluffy WWII film musicals, that war is a terrible thing. Even the "good war" to smash the undeniable Axis of Evil that was Germany and Japan.
Expecting younger kids to sit through the horror at the beginning is too much, but the movie isn't all surface gore and sensation. It raises very complex issues of morality and ethics under fire. And often the circumstances are literally under fire, where there's no time for Miller and his squabbling men to think over life and death matters or debate how to do the right thing. Indeed the most well educated and thoughtful American freezes up and has a breakdown in the thick of the fighting.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the D-Day invasion, and especially the troop makeup of WWII -- a lot of fighting and dying was done by soldiers who were hardly more than boys. The behavior of characters under fire includes cowardice and vicious homicide, unleashed even at surrendering enemy. Do you think those man can be excused for such a breakdown of discipline? What about soldiers in the field today? Was the mission to save Ryan worth the risk after all? What other war movies and documentaries have you seen? Do they seem true to life? How about the coverage you see in the news? Is it balanced? How would you be able to tell?
- In theaters: July 24, 1998
- On DVD or streaming: November 2, 1999
- Cast: Barry Pepper, Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Studio: DreamWorks
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Run time: 170 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language.
- Last updated: November 6, 2019
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