Steven Spielberg must surely be the world’s best known filmmaker. His name is an indicator, even to those who couldn’t name another director if pressed, of a certain type of motion picture which may vary wildly in genre (sometimes in the same film) but which will always promote the family as sacred, heroize the common man, and intend to emotionally uplift the viewer. Even in Saving Private Ryan, often viewed by critics and the public as Spielberg’s greatest departure in technique and content from his previous work, these tropes remain the bedrock upon which the narrative is founded. What follows is an examination of Ryan in an attempt to discover how successful Spielberg was at rewriting his role in the history of film.
Ryan starts (and ends) with a fifteen-second shot of a waving American flag filling the frame. Many have pointed out this shot to allege that the film’s patriotism is unabashed. I would disagree, thinking it as ironic as the use of the flag in Nashville or The Godfather Part II. Each of these directors creates irony through their own proven methods: Altman, through editing, juxtaposes the image with a vast array of differently interpretable events; Coppola, through mise-en-scene, has Vito Corleone’s child wave the flag to underscore the “American Dream” aspect of a murderous rise to mafia power; and Spielberg photographs the object between the camera and the sun, blasting the artifact with light. The result contains very little red, white, or blue at all. It reflects the uniform gray of the overcast sky prevalent throughout most of the film, suggesting that traditional American ideology is empty and, in this film, will be rendered transparent.
This is a philosophy fitting with the inclusion of the horrifically violent 24-minute D-Day sequence that starts the “flashback” comprising the body of the film. The film was advertised in trailers as a story about a search for a man whose brothers had died. The
D-Day sequence contains no information needed to follow the plot of the remaining two and a half hours of the movie. The sequence exists for its own sake, to shock the viewer. What it contributes to the rest of the film is an atmosphere, setting up a sense of how the universe will operate and how the characters will interact.
Of course, since this sequence is a re-creation of an actual historical event, the rules and ramifications of this are quite different than the choices made in the opening sequence of, say, E.T. (This sequence is notable because it lacks dialogue--while there is a good deal of dialogue in the D-Day sequence, the three times I saw the film in the theater, it proved largely indiscernible.) Spielberg is portraying something which members of his audience actually witnessed, and since his mission is, as he repeatedly stated in interviews, to “honestly” portray it, he must try to show them something which feels different from every war movie ever made. Moreover, he must show them a departure from every Steven Spielberg film ever made, even Schindler’s List, previously unanimously recognized as his greatest deviation from the norm (and greatest artistic success). As Entertainment Weekly put it: “If Schindler’s List was Spielberg’s rite of passage from starry-eyed man-child to a more serious, mortality-driven filmmaker, then Ryan showed him making good on that promise.” 1
The first and most obvious way Spielberg achieves this departure is through Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography. The picture looks nothing like anything Kaminski had previously shot, either, from Spielberg’s The Lost World or Amistad to romantic comedies like Jerry Maguire and Cool as Ice. This would lead one to believe, as was confirmed in the press, that the cinematographic style was the result of a collaboration between the two men (and Panavision, who furnished Kaminski with a special lens that would always render the sky a certain gray).
Both the flat green-gray color palette and the reliance on a documentary-style handheld camera are borrowed from battle sequences in the films of Spielberg’s friend and idol Stanley Kubrick--Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove, respectively. Even the overall impression of confusion, obscurity, and randomness is a natural descendant of the battle sequences of Kubrick’s first war film, Paths of Glory.
But Spielberg does introduce new elements into the equation, chief among them a narrow shutter angle that makes the action move in a heightened and jerky yet decidedly unrealistic way and light leaks which stain the image with shining vertical spikes. (A third element to be considered could be the common variance of film stocks, shifting the color palette of the same object from shot to shot.) All of these things work together to create in the viewer a conscious awareness of the photography in a way even Schindler’s, with its many handheld sequences, avoided.
The chief significance of these effects is that it is Spielberg who introduced them to mainstream America—the same Spielberg, who, pre-Schindler’s, was lazily lambasted by radical critics for creating a narrative that was too seamless, that made the camera and editing too invisible. These critics probably had not seen the war movies he made at the age of 15, shot in the same faux-verite style.
The second way Spielberg achieves the departure from his norm is through Gary Rydstrom’s sound design. The importance of this cannot be overstated, as the film sounds very little like any previous war film. All of the weaponry sound effects were authentic, coming from the correct rifle, machine gun, rocket launcher, or tank, and recorded specially for the film. The stereo surround mix possesses such phenomenal power that as I sat in the theater, I actually felt myself ducking and flinching as the bullets flew around me. The mix keeps the roar of battle at an almost intolerable level, drowning out (as mentioned above) the dialogue. What the soldiers are saying isn’t important; the fact that they’re screaming is.
The third method of Spielberg’s departure lies not in style but content. Specifically, gore. Men with their intestines exposed, men with their faces caved in, men with their arms blown off. I, who have never witnessed such atrocity, cannot say with authority that these things are portrayed “realistically”, but the unanimous opinions of veterans who have embraced the film counts for something. Not as an authentic recreation of participation, it must be understood (not “This is what it feels like to watch someone get shot through the head.”)--merely an authentic recreation of the images witnessed by those involved (just “This is what it looks like when someone gets shot through the head.”).
What was it that allowed a movie with this attitude toward depicting battle to be made in 1998, and not before? I believe it’s because Spielberg wished to make it, and given his previous track record, he has the power to make any damn movie he wants. As a co-founder of DreamWorks, Spielberg was and is his own executive producer—He’s come closer than anyone to Coppola’s dream of what American Zoetrope was supposed to be: A haven for unlimited creative freedom. Spielberg has shown us that the industry is only willing to tolerate this subsystem if what Spielberg’s “freedom” produces is as phenomenal a fiduciary success as what he did outside it. In other words, people like Spielberg and Lucas who want to make hits are able to grant themselves an ostensibly unlimited artistic license, whereas a filmmaker like Coppola who needs financial security both because of his dependence on opulent mise-en-scene and uncompromising individualistic tendencies, is unable to find it. I say all this to back up my assertion that no other filmmaker but Spielberg is powerful enough to have made a film as violent as "Ryan". (Now, as has happened countless times before, Hollywood is sure to irresponsibly follow in his footsteps.)
What I find problematic is not Spielberg’s re-creation of D-Day using the aforementioned techniques and violence or the veterans’ embrace of it as “realistic”. What, for me, does not jibe with the perception of this re-created world as authentic is its inclusion of Tom Hanks as the character through the eyes of which the entire event unfolds, often literally, by means of POV shots. Tom Hanks the megastar, the two-time Oscar winner, the multimillionaire. Doesn’t his presence transport us away from the beach and replant us in our theater seats in a way that the casting of Liam Neeson or Ralph Fiennes (as actors largely unknown in America) never did in Schindler’s? Doesn’t it reinforce the movie-ness of what’s going on in front of us and undermine whatever “realism” Spielberg worked so hard to create?
Somehow, sadly, no. I would posit that the casting of Hanks is the one element that allowed many audience members to sit through that sequence despite all the shocks and blood. Not just a familiar face but one who’s always an understandable and understanding good guy. Note that Hanks’ gruff, isolated character of Captain Miller is not revealed until after the sequence, so that during it, he is just Tom Hanks. Spielberg loves to comfort, and including Hanks is his way of including, in the typical audience member’s head, alongside the thought So this is how terrible war really is, the thought Thank God this is just a movie, or I might go insane.
After the waving flag but before the D-Day sequence, we see an old man at a cemetery who drops to his knees, overcome with emotion. The camera slowly moves toward his eyes until they fill the frame, and the pounding of the surf is heard. When we cut to the beach at Normandy, the assumption we make is that the man is remembering D-Day. When the first individual (photographed apart from the group) we see is Tom Hanks, we assume he’s the one who was at the cemetery.
These wrong assumptions are cemented by the shots that close the D-Day sequence. The camera moves into Hanks’ eyes, in an identical fashion, and lingers there. This is, of course, a trademark Spielberg move designed to draw us into the mind of the character before cutting to the majestic POV shot. The dialogue increases the anticipation. Sgt. Horvath, played by Tom Sizemore, remarks offscreen, “Hell of a view.” Hanks replies, “Yes it is.” (The dialogue is also a clever commentary on Spielberg’s oft-used technique: The view is actually Hanks, and therefore unimportant. It is our imagination of the view that has meaning for us. On another level, Hanks is the important viewed information: the talent worthy of Oscar consideration. Surely his nomination was a dead lock from the moment the trailer was released, containing this shot of Hanks, out of context.)
Then we cut to what Hanks sees: the bodies on the beach. The fish on the sand. The blood in the water. But it’s the way that this is shot that is significant: One long sweeping crane shot that hovers over the dead soldiers then descends to the back of one which reads: RYAN. But this camera move, completely incongruous with the handheld battle sequence, isn’t jarring. Why not? Because it’s told in the same filmic voice as the earlier cemetery sequence.
So Spielberg has created for himself thus far within the film two distinct modes of expression: Spielbergian and Not-Spielbergian. He wants most of the movie (the “honest” stuff) to be Not, because it’s “real”, but Spielberg will always be there to rescue the viewer when it hurts too much. The director spends the rest of the movie handing the duties off to himself at semi-regular intervals, which is fine when it’s merely to pace a scene, but when ideologies clash, it’s extremely messy.
The most problematic case of this is potentially that of Steamboat Willie, the name the credits give to the German who Hanks decides to let go rather than execute. I say potentially because I am unsure if Steamboat Willie returns in the course of the film. (I saw the film three times in the theater, and it never occurred to me that he did.) I am unsure if the German who stabbed Mellish and confronted Upham on the stairs was the same as the German who shot Hanks and whom Upham subsequently executed. (Such was my impression, in the theater.) However, having viewed the film on video and having heard the arguments of others that Steamboat Willie was the stabber or the shooter or both, I can see that it is possible.
If Willie is the shooter, it conflicts with the view espoused by the D-Day sequence that war is an illogical, unpredictable hell on earth. Nothing as blatantly ironic as Willie’s return and murder of Hanks would happen in the universe that was established with that 24-minute sequence. So it breaks the continuity of the mentality of the film—it severs the connection with the “real”. It is clearly the hand of Spielberg, coming in as he did on the beach, to save us from Not-Spielberg, to cut through the confusion and randomness with a little cause-and-effect. It allows us to feel gratification--retribution for Hanks’ murder.
At least, such is the argument of William Goldman and others. 2 For me, even if Willie is the shooter (of which I am not convinced), the tools of Not-Spielberg are too pervasive and force me to frame the event in different terms. After all, is it really that implausible that Willie would join the unit of Germans en route to Ramelle? Stranger and more unlikely things have happened. In addition, when Hanks is shot, the shooter is depersonalized--photographed from the back, like the Germans on the cliffs with machine guns in the D-Day sequence. He is not demonized or shown taking pleasure in sniping Hanks. He is subject to the same “follow fuckin’ orders” mentality that Miller, Hanks’ character, exerts on his men.
I feel no gratification when Willie is killed, only horror at Upham’s embrace of vengeful murder. What’s more, I get the impression Upham feels it too. He, who was the moral cornerstone of the movie when Miller wavered, has now let the darkness inside him take hold, and Miller is dead. This is Spielberg’s indication—and a brave one, for him, I think—that, in war, nothing is safe, not even mercy, and you have to live with your mistakes.
This is most evident for me in the character of Ryan (who, while we were being told the story of Miller’s search for him, has been searching for Miller’s grave, in a noteworthy counterpoint). Many hate the bookend sequence of him and his family, feeling that it overstates the obvious in cliched, melodramatic terms. I doubt any veterans, for whom Ryan’s emotions are a reality, share this stance. Ryan, his son, and grandchildren number six—the same number of lives that were lost to save him. As Austin Cline puts it: “Ryan, in an effort to earn those sacrifices, lived the best life he could - it didn't involve medicine or inventions, but just living. He worked with his hands and raised a family, doing the best he could and remembering why. Do we?” 3
I think Ryan contains Spielberg’s most “down” ending ever, even more so than The Sugarland Express. I think if an audience member is under the impression that Ryan actually believes his wife when she tells him he’s a good man, they’ve missed the entire point of the film. I see a haunted, broken man saluting a silent stone in the futile hope that it will make his nightmares stop. That repeated shot of the washed-out flag reiterates it for me: Patriotism is empty. It leads to loneliness and pain.
Spielberg’s main message is that war is evil and wrong. He conveys this at a literal level with the D-Day sequence (and again with the Ramelle sequence) but underlines it by demonstrating over and over that it isolates members of that which is truly sacred to Spielberg, the family. The old Ryan is unable to legitimately take comfort in his wife’s forced consolations. The young Ryan is deprived of the jovial company of his brothers. Ryan’s mother is overcome with grief at the loss of her sons. Miller’s one wish is to get back home to his wife. Wade’s one regret is that he never spent enough time with his mother. All of these dilemmas are permanent, unsolvable, worse than the death that war brings.
Spielberg’s talents of media promotion in the entertainment circus of the 90’s allowed him to shine light on the shocks and explosions of Ryan rather than on the story it was telling underneath its magnificent cinematography, sound, and editing, and how the script didn’t always jell with those elements. (For me, the worst moment of manipulation is when Hanks decides Ryan is still alive, and moments later, a soldier walks by who knows his location. Hanks didn’t use his intelligence to find Ryan, he created the path to Ryan out of sheer will.) Few have been willing to discuss in the media, perhaps because of Spielberg’s power, perhaps because they weren’t critical enough to notice, the distinctive split personalities at work in Saving Private Ryan. I think that Spielberg should be lauded for creating a film of such breathtaking power, if not for attempting to strike a new mold for himself. I believe he did succeed, if only partially, in finding a new voice for himself. Mainstream America certainly accepted the “real” Spielberg alongside the “cartoon” Spielberg of Raiders and Jurassic Park. I only wonder what "Ryan" would have been like if Spielberg could have made it when he were twenty, with his 8mm war movies still fresh in his mind, and untainted by images of himself.
1 Nashawaty, Chris. “Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.” Entertainment Weekly, Dec. 25,
1998/Jan 1, 1999.
2 Goldman, William. “The Best Medicine.” Premiere Magazine, April 1999.
3 Cline, Austin. “Saving Private Ryan, Dateline: September 30, 1998.”
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