Sharad Mathur

Movie in Focus – Saving Private Ryan

Sharad Mathur

Saving Private Ryan Cover

The screen reads June 6, 1944, Dog Green Sector, Omaha Beach; and the audience is taken back in time to the D-Day of allied invasion of Normandy. We see a boat full of young American soldiers ready to disembark on the beach where the Nazi guns were wreaking havoc. That’s where we first see Capt. John H. Miller. The only piece of advice he has for his nervous men before they approach the beach is to keep sand out of their weapons. And he goes numb amidst the hell German machine guns and artillery bring upon the GIs. He jolts back to reality by desperate pleas for direction from a young GI. He seems unsure, tentative, and fallible. But soon, he manages to rally the remaining troops, gets them to move to the seawall and towards the machinegun fire, assumes command, organises his offensive, and systematically clears one Nazi bastion of defence after the other. Although he was able to eventually win this bout, an aura of faint vulnerability continues to hover around him throughout the melee.

So, is Capt. Miller a lousy leader for he shows his vulnerability to his men? When one says vulnerable, it is but natural that related words that usually pop in our heads are weakness, incompetence, and naivety. This raises a more important question – can a leader ever seem vulnerable?

Patrik Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunction of a Team, would certainly nod in affirmation. In his Wall Street Journal piece he writes, ‘Imagine two lists: One contains the qualities that a business person should have, and another includes the attributes that most business people would say they wouldn’t want to have. There’s only one term I can think of that might top both lists: vulnerability’. And I agree.

Vulnerability makes one real. It is not a sign of weakness, but that of strength. The opposite of vulnerability is the pretention of a larger than life persona where the leader is always sure of what to do, is as competent as one can get, and never finds any situation overwhelming. Playing this macho hulk is not easy, but most play it out of insecurity. Insecure of not being accepted for whom they really are – regular individuals who have shortcomings and are prone to making mistakes. Vulnerability is the acceptance of one’s weaknesses, self-doubts, true appraisal of a situation, and being comfortable being who they really are. It takes courage. It makes the leader relatable. It yields trust and loyalty from his followers. The election result Aam Admi Party (AAP) enjoyed after Arvind Kejriwal’s apology and acceptance of his mistake is an example of this.

Yes, the enormity of challenge affected Capt. Miller; he was only human and he had no qualms in showing that. When he asks his GIs to march towards the machine gun fire, they listen to him because they believed in his authenticity in that situation. He was not the General who was pushing for the offensive with all the machismo despite the botched operation involving the paratroopers. He was the Capt. who was facing the heavy enemy fire, was as scared as his men were, and was asking them to move towards the machine guns because he genuinely believed fighting back was the only way to survive in that situation.

Another thing Capt. Miller does exceedingly well is take tough decisions unapologetically. Counting on his exceptional ability to successfully lead his men to the most death-defying missions, the top military leadership gave Capt. Miller the charge of fetching a Private James Ryan, whose three brothers were already KIA (killed in action), from the frontlines of the offensive; areas infested with the Nazi forces. Finding him was not only difficult, but life threatening. And Capt. Miller’s team – comprising Sergeant Mike Horvath, Private Reiben a BAR gunner, two riflemen Private Mellish and Private Caparzo, Private Jackson a sniper, Wade a medic, and Upham a cartographer and interpreter. To make it worse, the team did not like the idea of risking the lives of eight men to save one man’s life. They did not care enough for the fact that Ryan’s death would break the heart of his mother, which would be a story that could definitely damage the morale of a nation that was giving all it has to the war effort.

To take young, high on adrenaline soldiers, to a mission so treacherous that you are sure is going consume some (if not all) of them, calls for much more than an iron will. It required Capt. Miller to demonstrate the worthiness of a mission he himself questioned in the depths of his heart.  It often called for him to choose between two options, both of which sounded equally dreadful. It required him to make those decisions in no time. It required him to be objective and not stop to mourn or celebrate. It required him to consider the minority view in the team and to go against the majority view. It required him to not consider anyone else’s view but his own. It required him to deal with a revolt, take unpopular decisions, and continue leading his team.

For a leader, popularity of a decision can never be the only matrix to ascertain the quality of a decision. Let us take the example of Sam Palmisano, the CEO of IBM in early 2000s, who turned his top management team into beginners. Despite their protests, they were made general managers of new emerging businesses with no real resources. The idea was to get these experts to enhance their creativity, get the hang of a beginner’s mind once again, and in the process, relook the overall business strategy from a fresh perspective. At the end of it, IBM made a paradigm shift from being a hardware company to a services company – the possibility of which never crossed the minds of these senior executives before. Imagine the situation IBM would have been in if Sam Palmisano would have cared more for the approval of his team more than the need of the hour.

But did Capt. Miller not care about the lives of his men? By his own confession, he had lost 94 men in his command, but to continue, he had to rationalise by hoping to have saved lives, 10 times or 20 times of that number. He knew that taking the little girl to the next town with them was a decent thing to do, but he still had to remind his team that they are in the war zone to follow orders, and not to do the decent thing. He was moved by Caparzo’s loss, and in his heart, would give up 10 Ryans for one Caparzo; but he had to use his death as an example of what not to do for those alive. He knew that taking out the German sandbag bunker under the radar site would risk the life of his men and the mission; he went ahead nevertheless. He went for it against the wishes of most of his men, and lost Wade because he could see the larger picture they could not. He did it because he knew it was the right thing to do. And he was ready to face the consequences. That is what leaders are supposed to do.

The most difficult situation of that mission arose soon after. It is possible to fight your enemies; it hurts to fight your own men. Considering the minority opinion of Upham, the merit of which can be debated till the end of time, Capt. Miller let go of the captured German soldier; taking him prisoner was not an option, and killing a PoW (prisoner of war) was against the rules. An act that enraged Reiben and Mellish, and the situation quickly escalated. Reiben threatened to go AWoL (a military term and acronym, Absent Without Official Leave). Horvath pulls a gun at him and threatens to shoot him for deserting his team, and everyone else began yelling in panic. The atmosphere was filled with noises — “I will shoot you”, “shoot me”, “Ryan is dead”, “let him go”, “Capt. do something”. Amidst this madness, the recluse Capt. Miller – no one knew anything about – broke into a monologue of self disclosure.

“I’m a schoolteacher. I teach English composition in this little town called Addley, Pennsylvania. It’s uh…last 11 years, I’ve been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was a coach of a baseball team in the springtime. Back home, I tell people what I do for a living, they think, ‘well, that figures’. But over here, it’s a big mystery. So I guess I changed some. Sometimes, I wonder if I changed so much, if my wife is going to even recognise me, whenever it is I get back to her. And how I’ll never be able to tell her about days like today. Ah, Ryan, I don’t know anything about Ryan. I don’t care. The man means nothing to me. He’s just a name. But if you know, if going to Ramelle and finding him so he can go home, if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, well then, that’s my mission. You (Reiben) want to leave? You want to go off and fight the war? All right, I won’t stop you. I’ll even put in the paperwork. Just know, every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.”

No prizes for guessing, it worked. It has to work. Revealing one’s goals, values, feelings, and emotions gets a leader more traction with his followers. Designations do not interact with designations; people do. A training session starts with a round of introductions, starting with the facilitator himself, for the same reason. That is why we see the pictures of Barrack Obama with his dog and Vladimir Putin riding a horse. The disclosure of his humble beginnings is one of the reasons for Narendra Modi’s popularity. This is why we still remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee for his poetry more than his concrete achievements as a Prime Minister.

But as a caveat, self-disclosure needs to be skilfully done, at the right time and in the right context. Imagine if Capt. Miller had gone talking about himself at every possible juncture. Would his self-disclosure still have worked when the guns were already drawn? In all possibilities, no it would not have. In his context, he had to maintain the distance military hierarchy demands. And it worked because it was able to create an impact on his team members who were running a pool on information about him. He showed his emotions to his team just in time; a debate on could it have happened before, would not do much for our purpose. The bottom line is that it worked. The team backed him like a rock. They repeatedly give up their chances of attaining glory in the war. They continue on the mission to save just one man, which to their mind, is FUBAR (military acronym for F*cked Up Beyond Any Repair). They fight shoulder to shoulder with him, saving Private Ryan, holding the two strategic bridges, and in the process, making the supreme sacrifice with him.

As for us the viewers, his last words to Ryan, “James … earn this. Earn it,” are left reverberating through our minds.

P.S. – Saving Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and it won five of them, including the Best Director Award for Steven Spielberg.  It remains one of the most popular war movies of all time and has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry – located in the Library of Congress, Washington – for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. Although the film’s plot is fictional, the screenplay written by Robert Rodat is so rigorous, and the character of Capt. John H. Miller is so real, that the movie is used at world’s leading universities for teaching leadership courses.

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