In a motion picture that has already made news for recreating the immense noise of war, the moments of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan that truly stick out are when the sound goes away during the battles of this World War II film.
After an almost wordless opening – few titles, barely-heard dialogue, and the silence that has settled over the famous cemetery on the Normandy cliffs – silence in this movie changes, and ceases to be a peaceful quiet. At least twice, we get into the head of Sgt. John Miller (Tom Hanks), and there’s a terribly awkward lack of sound; this unnatural quiet is something our ears don’t want to hear…
…but the sheer noise of this film’s 20-minute restaging of D-Day is something else that we, the audience, don’t want to hear, and the effect is to give us some sort of respite. Is the silence a safety valve? People talk about how a part of themselves shuts down in combat; is this meant to convey that? (As Miller says later, “Every man I kill, the farther away from home I feel.” He knows a part of himself is shutting down because of the war.)
The end result puts you through a wringer. Saving Private Ryan does everything it can to make you feel wary, and weary, and overwhelmed by an overwhelming war.
Miller leads troops onto Omaha Beach in the first wave of the D-Day invasion. (After the opening, which shows a tiny part of the Normandy invasion, we then see one of the most epic shots of the film: hundreds of Allied ships, blimps, tanks and transports massing on the French coast, as thousands of troops fall in. But pay attention to the tone of the scene: there’s a quiet resignation to it, the feeling that “we must keep moving – we are tired, but our job is not finished.” There is nothing “rah rah” here, no sense of triumph. The large vistas as well as the small stories of Saving Private Ryan contribute to that feeling of weariness that is a major part of this movie.)
It is then that the plot begins: the Army learns that of four Ryan brothers fighting in the war, three have died within days (and for two of them, minutes) each other. One surviving brother, a Private James Ryan who parachuted into France, is unaccounted for. Miller is ordered to lead seven soldiers on a mission to find and rescue Ryan, and though Miller calls it “a P.R. mission,” he does as he’s told.
For the rest of the movie, everything stays at the human scale while the eight men make their way through France, have close calls, fight the Germans, experience false alarms, cope with the war through brutal humor, and (in some cases) get killed. When they find Ryan (Matt Damon), the mission isn’t over: they’re in a position to keep the Germans off a bridge that Ryan’s company had reached, and despite his personal loss Ryan refuses to stop fighting until the bridge is secured for the Allies…or is destroyed to hold up the Germans.
The troopers are men you almost but don’t quite recognize, including Tom Sizemore – an often intimidating presence (Natural Born Killers, The Relic) – and Ed Burns, the actor-writer-director of She’s The One…and whom you might mistake for Ben Affleck. Just know that they’re good actors. With the exception of Hanks, the bright young Damon and a certain former sitcom star who has a brief scene, you’re not meant to completely recognize them; they’re meant as Soldiers.
The entire film is monochromatic; everything looks and feels faded, muted. Even John Williams’s music is this way: subdued brass is the main orchestral color, providing more of an undercurrent than anything strident or assertive. (There also is no music for any of the battles; Spielberg wanted the sound effects to overwhelm us.) Strings only get added to the mix very late in the drama – and a chorus joins in only during the end credits.
For a three-hour film, there is almost no fat, no padding. This is an added surprise since one of Spielberg’s goals was to portray the boredom in war, and to show how soldiers would have coped.
Yes, Saving Private Ryan is manipulative by its sheer weight; it wants to be the emotional equivalent of combat, to give us just a taste of what it may have been like. Spielberg takes his well-known ways of getting to people’s emotions – those trademark slow zooms toward or away from faces are all over this movie – and combines these techniques with frenetic handheld camera work and images of true brutality. This is so unmistakably a Spielberg movie that you might not realize he has never shot a deadly serious feature film battle. (Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List see the war through the eyes of those who weren’t soldiers, and 1941 was fantasy.) I’ve rarely been in an audience as quiet and attentive as the Ryan audience was. That alone should give some sense of the experience.