Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan part 1

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The more I look at it, the more I feel Saving Private Ryan is Steven Spielberg’s best movie. It’s not fun like Raiders, not fun like Jaws for that matter, and perhaps a tad less startlingly original than Close Encounters. It’s more emotionally devastating than Schindler or E.T., and less manipulative than both — it earns its sucker-punches several dozen times over. It’s a little earnest and occasionally leaden in its use of irony, but the execution — oh my lord, the execution. Conceptually, as a work of cinema there is little new, but Spielberg pushes his work as a director into ever-more sophisticated and surprising areas. The movie’s philosophy is simple — deceptively so — and presents a vision of wartime sacrifice and patriotism of unusual depth and complexity. Hold on, this is going to be really long.


1:17 — An American flag fills the screen, waving in the breeze. Is this a simple statement of patriotism? "I am a proud American?" I don’t think so: the colors are bleached, almost nonexistent, as the sun shines through them. Spielberg, being Spielberg, wants to "stand the flag on its head" without doing so literally (for contrast, watch the club-footed ending of In the Valley of Elah) — he wants us to see it in a way we’ve never seen it before, and to look at war, and wartime sacrifice, in a way we’ve never lookedat them before. This flag seems old and worn, barely there at all. Spielberg wants to take us back, to try to recover what we’ve lost, what we’ve forgotten.

1:39 — An old man walks through a military cemetary in France. His wife, his children, some grandchildren follow behind him. No dialogue tells us this, only images. There will be no dialogue of consequence for the first 30 minutes of the movie.

In perhaps the most subtle moment of the movie, one of the adult children, a man, raises his camera to take a picture of the old man. The wife of the man with the camera, who walks with a small child, gives him a scolding look. The man lowers the camera with a "what" look on his face. This man, unidentified, is one of two Spielberg stand-ins in the movie: he is compelled to document something impossible to document, to shoot things that no one should desire to see. As Spielberg gets older, he seems compelled to this more and more: the horrors of the Holocaust, the brutality of slavery, the landing at Normandy. Just as there is nothing in Spielberg that will prepare you for Schindler, there is nothing in Schindler that will prepare you for Ryan. (And, I’ll just add here, there is nothing in Ryan that will prepare you for Munich. But that’s a story for another day.)

The old man leaves the path and enters into the sea of white crosses (and the occasional Star of David). We’re not even told what war this cemetery honors, we have to guess from the clothes and the even-older uniformed man who looks over at the old man as he walks stiffly to a specific grave, and collapses. His family rushes to him and he looks up and off in the distance and the camera pushes way in close to his piercing blue eyes.

Another viewer might say "Well, but of course we know this is a movie about WWII," but why would we know that? No one ever says that. And, subtle as they are, the choices Spielberg makes in this very first scene speak to the encompassing vision of wartime sacrifice he’s presenting: it doesn’t matter what war it is, or what cemetery it is for that matter. This is not a story about politics or world history — it’s the story of a man and his salvation. The "saving" of the title describes the action of the narrative, but also something deeper, and by the end of the movie we will be asked to question whether or not Private Ryan has been saved after all.

4:14 — And thus begins the most jaw-dropping, most complex, most intense, most horrifying presentation of men in battle ever presented. When I was a young man, seeing Jaws made me want to be a film director. If I had been a young man seeing Ryan I would have just thrown up my hands in dismay — there’s no way I ever could imagine coming up with any given five minutes of this staggering 25-minute sequence.

There is much carnage and horror in this justly-famous sequence, and it’s so impressive and horrifying that it’s easy to miss that there is an actual movie going on in here as well, with traditional things like character-building and plot and everything else. As I’ve pointed out before, the protagonist of Ryan doesn’t give a long, heartfelt speech as his men go into battle, all his dialogue, all the dialogue for the first half-hour, is technical and jargon-heavy — the men could just as well be barking like sealions for all the expository information they get across. Because Spielberg makes the bold choice to reveal his characters in Act I solely through their actions, I’m going to take the time to follow along.

We start with our protagonist, Capt Miller, on his little boat surrounded by a bunch of soldiers we’ll never see again. His hands shake on his gun as he gives the men in his charge some technical advice; his advice is expanded upon by hulking, experienced Sgt Horvath. We get no "history" between these two men, they don’t trade stories of their adventures or give each other knowing looks. What we "get" from this brief scene is that these men have a job to do, and part of their job is making sure the men in their charge stay alive.

6:52 — The front of the boat drops down and the men in the bow are instantly killed. Then the row behind them are instantly killed. And the viewer says "Oh shit, there is no possible way to survive this, what the hell are these men going to do?" Which is, of course, exactly what’s going on in the protagonist’s mind. Miller sees that certain death is coming in the front of the boat, so he orders his men to jump over the side. They do, and some die a teeny bit more slowly, but no less horribly, under the water.

Keep in mind, we don’t even really know where we are yet or what the mission’s objective is. We know there’s a beach, and now we know it’s a heavily defended beach, that there is some kind of concrete pillbox up on the hill firing machine guns at "our guys," but Spielberg keeps his camera in the point of view of his protagonist. We can barely see anything, the camera ducks and weaves and jumps as though it, too, is afraid of getting plugged at any moment. We never really take in the full measure of the invasion, it unfolds slowly, incrementally, throughout the first act.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the direction of this movie because it’s not the point of this blog, but to reduce the opening of Ryan to "shaky-cam cinema" does it a disservice. This is extraordinarily sophisticated filmmaking, Spielberg covers and cuts together all different styles of camera movement here, zooms and pans and dollies and tracking shots and, sure, plenty of hand-held shaky-cam, to put us into the middle of this extraordinary sequence.

8:12 — In the middle of all hell breaking loose, Miller gets to the surf. He grabs another soldier by the shoulder and helps him through the waves to an obstacle — never too busy to stop to help a man in his charge. Just as the man has gotten to his feet, he is shot and falls over.

9:18 Miller arrives at the beach and takes stock of the situation. He has arrived. He looks worried and confused. The sound drops to a dull roar as we enter his head, his ears full of water and screams and explosions. To his left, men huddle behind an obstacle and cry. A soldier with a flamethrower explodes into flame. A mortar goes off to his right, covering him in a shower of blood. In the aftermath of the explosion, another soldier looks around on the beach for his severed arm. Down the beach, a squad of men file off a boat, in flames. The surf around him is red. He puts on his helmet — it is full of seawater and blood.

10:27 — A younger soldier appears before Capt Miller and snaps him out of his reverie. He is reminded that he is not permitted to merely sit and watch in horror — he is required to act, to protect his men from the oncoming onslaught. He is one of the few father-figures in Spielberg’s work who takes his role seriously from the start. But here in the middle of Hell, Miller is still confused and disoriented, until Sgt Horvath, more of a brother than a son, already a ways advanced up the beach, calls to him and orients him. The world then snaps into focus and Miller snaps into action, leading a small clump of men up the beach.

12:00 — Miller finds a wounded man, asks for medical assistance. He’s told that the spot he’s in is about to be blown up by a munitions team, he’ll have to seek medical assistance elsewhere. Instead of abandoning the wounded soldier, Miller drags him up the beach, where, seconds later, he is blown in half by an explosion and Miller is left dragging a torso.

13:50 — Miller makes it to a sand dune at the base of the pillbox, where a number of men crouch in terror, out of the machine-gun’s range. He finds a guy with a phone, tells him to tell whoever’s on the other end of the line that his part of the invasion is failing, that he has no support. It’s the first status report we’ve gotten, and for the most part it’s meaningless — all we’re told is that things aren’t going well, which, well, to put it mildly, we already know that, thank you. In a few seconds, Miller reaches for the phone guy again to find that he no longer has a face and the phone has been destroyed. He reacts to this as I might react to finding out my favorite cup hasn’t been washed yet: it’s a minor annoyance in the context of the insane clusterfuck surrounding him.

15:05 — We are introduced to Caparzo and Wade, who will end up being in Miller’s Ryan-saving squadron. Wade is a medic, we see him operate on a wounded soldier on the beach, using a dead body as a barrier against bullets and flying sand. We catch him in the moment of saving a man’s life, one second before the man is shot in the head. (Interestingly, Spielberg does not show the Germans shooting at medics — he goes to great lengths in this movie to not present the German army as savages or monsters.)

16:19 — Now what? Crouching against their precious sand dune, Miller and Horvath discuss ideas about how to get the men to the next step. With so many of their numbers dead, Miller directs his men to gather weapons and ammo and we see a soldier untangle a bandolier of bullets from the shoulders of a still-living man who’s just lost a leg. We also briefly meet Reiben, who will also end up with Miller on his mission.

17:24 — We meet Jackson, another member of Miller’s squad, as Wade clamps the artery of a weeping soldier. To Wade’s left, a soldier is hit on his helmet with a bullet. He takes off his helmet to make sure he’s not wounded, and is shot through the head. An incredible moment, and key to how the narrative of Ryan works: we are never sure of where instant death will come from in this movie, in what form and for what reason. With the poor head-shot soldier, Spielberg gives us one unbelievable moment, a brief laugh, then sudden tragedy, a tiny, second-long narrative that introduces a character, gives us a brief moment to love him, then savagely cuts him down.

18:22 — Bangalore torpedoes arrive, somehow, and are used to clear a space through the dunes so that Miller and a squad of men can advance to the base of the pillbox. Down on the beach, Wade’s boss takes him through a crude triage session, instructing him on priorities. Again, it’s small and subtle, but priorities, and Wade’s priorities specifically, will continuously circle around in this narrative.

19:07 — At the base of the pillbox now, having achieved something that seemed utterly impossible fifteen minutes earlier, Miller devises a plan to take out a machine-gun nest at the top of a hill. We meet Mellish, the Jewish member of Miller’s bomber-crew squadron, who gives up his gum and bayonet to Miller for his plan. Miller’s plan involves standing up like an idiot to draw the gunner’s fire while Jackson, his master sniper, sneaks by and gets to a good sniping position.

On the beach, a chaplain delivers last rites to a dying soldier, while another soldier, nearby, recites the rosary. These brief scenes of faith in the face of death segue to Jackson, who recites Bible verse as a prelude to a kill. Again, less than a minute long, Spielberg, given the so-so character beat of "Bible-quoting sniper," takes the extra step of "standing the idea on its head," placing it in context — faith is there to comfort men in times of death, or to inspire them to kill better. Jackson does his job, the machine-gun nest is taken out, and Miller, Horvath and his team head up the hill to the pillbox.

22:30 — Now, unbelievably, they’re behind the enemy, and the enemy’s fortifications, so impregnable twenty minutes earlier, are a trap for them to escape. The concrete pillboxes and protective trenches that surround them put the Germans in the position of animals to slaughter (and I even detect an homage to Hud in the shots of soldiers firing their rifles down into a trench full of unseen, helpless Germans). A soldier with a flamethrower fills the pillbox with fiery death and the Germans surrender. Some of them are shot in the act of surrendering, an action Miller watches with sadness and resignation. He’s in the position to chastise the murdering soldiers, perhaps even arrest them, but he only frowns and turns away: there has been so much death today, so much murder, he can’t bring himself to address this breach.

25:52 — Caparzo finds a Hitler Youth knife on the body of a dead German and gives it to Mellish, who takes it, makes a smart remark and then collapses in tears. Caparzo, taken by Mellish’s reaction, also pauses to reflect on everything that’s happened so far. Meanwhile, Horvath gathers some dirt into a canister labeled "FRANCE," and we see that he has two others in his pack labeled "AFRICA" and "ITALY." Clearly Horvath is an expert at invasions, and this is, essentially, all the backstory he ever gets, and all he needs.

Miller’s hand shakes again as he takes a swig from his canteen and the camera does a slow push into his eyes. This repeat of the slow push into the old man’s eyes in the cemetery is, of course, a deliberate misdirect. It informs us, deceptively, that no matter what else happens in this horrifying carnival of sudden death, Capt Miller is going to be okay, we know so, because we’ve already seen him alive as an old man with many children and grandchildren. Spielberg does this, of course, to give Miller’s eventual fate that much more punch, and to keep the suspense of Ryan’s salvation alive until the very end. That he could stop to concoct such a misdirect in the midst of such an open wound of a narrative is a little manipulative, but I find I cannot argue with the results — the ending of Saving Private Ryan affects me like no other in Spielberg’s work.

As we push in to Miller’s eyes, Horvath, offscreen, says "Quite a view," and we are forced to consider what we, what Miller, has witnessed — unspeakable acts, some committed by himself, in the name of — of what?

Well, that’s a central question to Ryan. What are the men fighting for? Are they fighting for "America?" Are they fighting for freedom, or against tyranny, or even against Germans? In the vocabulary of Ryan, none of those apply: Miller fights for self preservation, and for the lives of the men in his care, and that’s it. He has no vision of warfare aside from what’s happening right here, right now. And the "view" that he has, now that he’s accomplished the day’s work of murdering hundreds of Germans, is of that horrible, horrible beach, covered with mutilated bodies. Spielberg gives us our first "inflected" shot of the movie for this "view," a long, slow, bird’s-eye track up the beach, coming to rest on the body of a dead Private, whose name is, of course, Ryan.

Unbelievbly, the act is not yet over.

28:35 — In this movie about men in battle, about sudden death, where are the women? They are, we find, back in the US, working in an office, at rows of desks, typing. What are they typing? Why, they’re typing the letters to get sent out to the mothers of all the American soldiers we just saw get slaughtered. In one of my favorite Spielberg moments, we track through this platoon of WWII-era typists and come to one well-cast matron, who stops in her work and picks up a letter, then another, and compares the two. Troubled, she gets up and walks over to another desk, rifles through a file of letters on another typist’s desk, finds a third letter, and takes all three to her boss. All of this is without dialogue. The matron and her boss then take the three letters to the boss’s boss, where we learn that the three letters have all been written to the same woman — she has, in one week, lost three of her four sons to the war.

30:32 — And where does this unfortunate woman live? Well, where would she live? Spielberg needs to establish the idea of "Heartland America," so he has no choice but to put her in a freakin’ farmhouse in the middle of a vast field of amber waves of grain (presumably he could not find a location that also featured purple mountains majesty). Again, the choice is obvious and manipulative, but after the relentless horror of the preceding half-hour of the movie, the contrast is undeniable. In a world where, as far as we know, there is nothing but explosions and blood and guts and severed limbs, there is also, it seems, a silent farm where a solitary woman washes dishes.

A car comes up the drive and the woman goes out on the porch to investigate. There is a framed photo of her four sons on the dresser next to the door. She stands her ground when a military officer gets out of the car, but when a priest steps out of the back, she buckles and sits down flat on her front porch. Again, no dialogue supplied or required.

33:18 — And here begins the first real expository scene in the movie. General Marshall, the officers we’ve seen before and a new guy debate what to do about this Ryan situation. The new guy insists that it will be wasteful and impossible to locate and safely retrieve one soldier in the midst of the absurdly large operation of D-Day, but Marshall doesn’t see it that way, and neither does Spielberg. The battles of Ryan are about — what else? — family. Marshall knows that it might be wasteful and stupid and pointless to get a bunch of good men killed for the sake of the last Ryan son, but war, he argues (with backup from Abraham Lincoln) isn’t about military objectives, it’s about families sending their sons to be killed. He argues, and this argument will come up again in different forms, that if the maintenence of the nuclear family isn’t a priority of the war, then what the hell are we doing here at all? (In a nice touch, Marshall begins reading the Lincoln letter to prove his point, but after a few lines he puts it down and recites it from memory — General Marshall, in this movie anyway, has not lost his compass, he’s committed in his priorities and unwavering.)

36:16 — It is, apparently, a few days later. Miller reports to his boss, Lt Col Anderson. Anderson has a staff of office workers, hot coffee and sandwiches. He didn’t spend D-Day watching his men get blown to bits, but he’s not going to apologize for that. He acknowledges Miller’s sacrifices and Miller glumly acknowledges his acknowledgement. He’s not proud of taking his pillbox, he’s ashamed, saddened. He’s reporting a great success but he delivers the news as though it’s a failure. Anderson then brings up his new mission: locating and rescuing Private Ryan.

38:44 — Miller and Horvath discuss their new mission, which sounds like bullshit to both of them. They briefly discuss a plan of attack and talk about assembling a squad for the job. Miller mentions a couple of men and Horvath tells Miller the men are dead. Miller reacts to this news with no more emotion than if Horvath had told him the men are on vacation.

39:17 — Lacking a translator, Miller locates and conscripts Upham, the movie’s major Spielberg stand-in. Upham is nervous, inexperienced and plainly terrified at the prospect of facing actual battle situations. He is also, oddly, like Laughlin in Close Encounters, a cartographer and interpreter. A natural audience surrogate, Upham will ask all the questions we have about what’s going on and what it all means. Spielberg also gives us, 39 minutes in, the movie’s first actual moments of humor as Upham clumsily gathers his things.

41:30 — As the act closes, Spielberg gives us that view of the beach, the one we didn’t quite get before, finally showing us an overview of the military situation. Now, of course, it’s days later and, in the direct result of Miller and thousands of others having done their jobs, the beach has been transformed from a hellish nightmare to a military stronghold.


21 Responses to “Spielberg: Saving Private Ryan part 1”
  1. mikeyed says:

    And that’s only act one!

  2. nearside says:

    I remember being stunned at the implications of Horvath and his tins of dirt. The thought of the previous twenty five minutes having been something he’d been through before, at least twice. The sheer amount of information implied in that simple, human action, that collection… I remember being impressed when I first saw it, and I’m still impressed today.

  3. brandawg says:

    I watched this movie over the weekend and looked up some information on it. The two surrendering Nazi soldiers are saying, “Don’t shoot; we’re Czech.” Czech soldiers were conscripted into the German army at the time and forced to serve against their will. So often, WWII is viewed as the “good” war and we were totally in the right all of the time foreverandeveramen, but the beauty of this film is how it humanizes everyone involved, warts and all.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Going further, I think the film kind of tears down the idea that there can be a “good war.” You can have good causes to fight for and good soldier who fight the war, but the idea that the act of war itself is going to be anything other than a huge, messy ordeal of groups of people trying to kill each other and having to see and do things most civilians would consider beyond horrific is a fallacy.

  4. stormwyvern says:

    Can you believe that, back when I was in college, the local dinner theater was showing this film? “A man was just blown in half, oh look! Our mac and cheese has arrived!” Equally weird if not weirder were the people who brought their very young kids to the movie. I don’t think they were paying enough attention to be scarred by it.

    By the way, what does the protagonist want? I guess at this point the answer would be something along the lines of “to survive”, “to keep his men alive”, or “to do the job assigned to him.” I recall it being a little while before Capt. Miller reveals he true, overall goal, which requires that he first complete the mission assigned to him.

    • Todd says:

      One of the narrative strategies of Ryan is that the secrets of its protagonist’s nature unfolds slowly, which is an excellent point and which I will get to tomorrow.

  5. serizawa3000 says:

    Masterful as always.

    Some time ago, around the time Ryan was in theaters, I read one indie filmmaker’s rather negative review of the film… he blasted the whole Normandy sequence as pointless. When I discussed this bit of ado with friends of mine who’d seen the movie, they disagreed. There was a point, they argued: Normandy was what was going through the characters’ minds throughout the whole film.

    • Todd says:

      For a first-timer, it also serves to throw the viewer completely off-balance and create a Hitchcockian level of suspense. At the top of Act II, the relaxed soldiers hike through French countryside, safe and sound, and the viewer sits cowering, waiting for someone’s head to explode.

    • curt_holman says:

      “Normandy was what was going through the characters’ minds throughout the whole film.”

      I’ve heard that all the actors in Miller’s squad (I don’t know if that includes Hanks and Sizemore) had to go through a grueling boot camp preparation for the film — but Matt Damon was spared the same experience, allegedly so he could seem ‘untouched,’ or something like that.

      • Todd says:

        “a grueling boot camp preparation”

        Yes, called “independent filmmaking.”


      • stormwyvern says:

        I remember reading about that too. For being the highest profile actor in the group, Tom Hanks was awarded the privilege of being known as “Dirtbag #1.” One thing that particularly stuck with me is hearing a story about how the actors’ drill sergeant presented them with a hypothetical scenario where a close friend of theirs was gunned down while standing right next to them and asked them what they would feel. The actors responded with standard answers – grief, shock, anger – all of which were dismissed as wrong. The drill sergeant told them they would feel relived, even glad, that they weren’t the ones who were hit. And almost immediately afterward, they would feel guilt for feeling that way, a guilt that would stick with them long after the battle and the war were done.

      • antiotter says:

        “Grueling,” Heh. Hehehe. Oh man, when I read stuff like that, it makes me so glad someone finally made a movie like “Tropic Thunder.”

  6. quitwriting says:

    Saving Private Ryan is a film that I’ve watched only a handful of times. I’ve never needed to watch it more. It’s one of very few films that always elicits an emotional response from me. I know what’s going to happen, and I know why it’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. But it still moves me. Ryan is one of the few movies out there that can make me cheer, make me cry, make me brood and make me laugh all within the span of the movie.

    Great review, I highly anticipate further narrative about this from you.

  7. Thanks again for doing this!

    I can’t wait to read your take on the Vin Diesel death scene.

  8. curt_holman says:


    I see your little ploy: you’ve chosen to analyze Saving Private Ryan the same week that the Republican National Convention is nominating a WAR HERO as their candidate for president. Did John McCain mention he was a P.O.W.? I wonder how many other ways you’ve been subtly advancing the McCain/Palin agenda?

    “Spielberg needs to establish the idea of “Heartland America,” so he has no choice but to put her in a freakin’ farmhouse in the middle of a vast field of amber waves of grain”

    Whenever I remember this scene, I imagine the Ryans living at the same house where Clark Kent grew up in Richard Donner’s Superman.

  9. greyaenigma says:

    One of the main things I remember about this is that the downtown Portland theater was all decked out in camo, and the ushers were wearing fatigues. Seemed kind of like overkill, regardless of how good the movie was.

  10. ogier30 says:

    Some thoughts I had while reading your commentary:

    – Your comments on how we don’t know what war this is… well, I think we do. I think this is one film that uses the pre-release coverage and the iconography of the film poster to let us short-hand into the film. Spielberg has become very good at using the entire media experience to build and prep us for his films, I think, and SPR is one of the best examples of his ability to prime an audience with a lot material that would normally be put at the start of a film in pre-release materials. At the same time, I think he also uses our expectations of a hundred (or thousand) other WWII films we’ve seen before against us, in this film.

    – In the opening sequence, you discuss a lot of the visual aspects, but I think the sound work is spectacular as well. Sound comes in and out, fades and peaks, and creates its own chaos. It reinforces the imagery, the “shakey” camera work, and in the theater, washed over you like a storm. The pings and spangs off the metal work tell us there’s no safety here. The screams tell us that off screen, where we aren’t looking, men are dying. The sound work is just incredible in this film.

    – You skipped over the part, at the base of the pillbox, where Miller selects the men to die trying to get past/to the MG pit. They’re given names, and then sent out to die not as no-name “red shirts”, but as real men sacrificed to open up the beach. This also, I think, sets up some of Miller’s actions later on … I’m thinking the assault on the MG nest at the base of the radar station, for example. Most importantly, though, when Miller risks himself for the plan to work, we see he’s not someone who will ask of his men what he won’t do himself.

    • Todd says:

      It is true that Spielberg, and the studio he co-owns, are masters in prepping the audience for his movies in their initial release. But here we are ten years later, and Ryan is just another DVD on the shelf. Regardless of its opening-weekend hype, a movie has to succeed or fail on its own merits. (And it’s reasonable to assume that anyone old enough to see this blistering war drama is old enough to have learned in school the basic outline of WWII. And, for what it’s worth, even if one is confused in the opening minutes of the movie, a title card gives you the date, June 6, 1944, before Miller invades Normandy.) My point about the opening sequence is that the argument of Ryan is, ultimately, not about the importance of WWII, but about the sacrifice of soldiers everywhere, why we send them, why they fight and die.

      The sound in Ryan is indeed superlative, as is the production design and a million other aspects. I’m trying to stick to the screenplay or else I’ll never finish this thing.

      I didn’t catch that Miller was expressly sending men “to die” at the base of the pillbox, but it wouldn’t surprise me. There are a many little dramas taking place during that sequence which I probably didn’t catch.

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        You don’t remember that dialog where Miller explains what he’s doing to somebody else, and explains how he can live with it? It was one of the truest moments in that so fakey-looking battle scene.