What ‘Saving Private Ryan’ can teach us about investigation
I recently watched (again, for the 79th time) the 1998 epic war film starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, Saving Private Ryan. And if you didn’t know, or have recently returned from Eastern Siberia, the movie depicts a WWII US Ranger squadron tasked to find a missing soldier – Private James Francis Ryan – and return him home. His three other brothers had been killed in action and the brass wanted him back to him mother.
The star of the film is Tom Hanks, who plays Squadron Leader Captain John H Miller. Suffering his own daemons, he leads his band of battle-hardened troops (and one who’s fired a gun only once) through the German-occupied Western Europe, losing men in battle, all to save one soldier and return him home. Needless to say, the movie is an excellent example of what good leadership looks like in the face of war. It’s a lesson all leaders can take; lead by example, collaborate with those under you never, ever whinge down. “I only ever gripe up, never down,” as Captain Miller states.
So what’s this got to do with investigation?
That’s a great question!
And that’s the point; asking questions is the oldest investigative and evidence gathering technique and is still as important as ever. Prior to undertaking their search for Private Ryan, they were given limited information about his whereabouts or movements. They didn’t know what he looked like, who he was with or even whether he was alive or dead. But they set off regardless.
Captain Miller asked questions of everyone he met, to find out more about Private Ryan. And he asked more questions as he went. A lot of the information was hearsay, rumour and circumstantial, but he pieced together the information he needed to find him. That is, until he found James Frederick Ryan and told him he’d lost his three brothers. They were still in high school. Check out the scene here. He continued on.
At one stage he became so frustrated that he went into a random pack of soldiers and just started yelling the name of Private Ryan. But someone heard it and gave him the relevant information he needed to continue.
The film is a great example of chasing rabbits – in this case Germans – down holes (read about this here) and not giving up until you’ve exhausted your line of enquiry. It also highlights that as an investigator, one must proactively seek the information that’s required. It not always (in fact, hardly ever) going to come to your door.
Asking questions, and asking the right questions, gathering evidence, piecing together a picture based on circumstantial evidence, making judgements, taking risks and being inquisitive are essential traits for an investigator. It’s important not to lose sight of tried and tested, traditional ways to investigate.