When I was fifteen years old, “Saving Private Ryan” came out in theaters. I don’t know if it was because of Tom Hanks or the story line or what, but I really wanted to see it. My cousin and I begged my dad to take us to the movies. He dropped us off at a tiny theater across the street from where the Goodyear Blimp was stored. We bought cherry sours and Coke slushies and found our way to the theater.
The first 30 minutes were the most intense 30 minutes of any film I’d seen. It opened with the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Unlike the older World War II films where a bullet to the heart produced a theatrical fall, a little bit of obviously fake blood and famous last words, Saving Private Ryan was the goriest movie I’d ever seen. A soldier reached down to pick up his arm which had been blown off, another was laying on the ground with guts strewn across the sand, the water was red with blood and soldier after soldier fell in similarly violent fashion.
It was not at all the feel-good movie I thought I was seeing. As we left the theater, I noticed we were easily the youngest kids there and that everyone else was similarly rattled. It was the first time I’d had a glimpse of war for what war really is. Watching a movie completely changed the way I thought of war and the way I thought of the sacrifice our soldiers make. “It’s just a movie” didn’t apply here; this movie had altered my thinking.
Years later, I studied World War II history in Normandy. I met members of the French Resistance (yes, it existed), visited the memorial cemetery at Omaha Beach as part of a research project on World War II cemeteries, met with World War II vets, visited all of the significant war sites and every tiny war museum in the provence. I left with a profound appreciation for what these men and women did for freedom. It changed me. I doubt I’d have even considered studying World War II if not for “Saving Private Ryan.”
You never know what the catalytic moment will be — what will propel someone to learn more about America, our heritage and our longstanding tradition of freedom. In this instance, and even in the case of my political awakening, it wasn’t a politician or a a policy that sparked my interest; it was some seemingly innocuous part of pop culture that stirred some part of me and caused me to think.