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Saving Private Ryan (1998)

by on 2010/11/26

Years ago I attended a conference in Toronto for film and TV composers. I was particularly drawn by one of the speakers, Amin Bhatia, who had created an early favourite album, The Interstellar Suite. He spoke about scoring John Woo’s Once a Thief, and proposed that the secret of successful audio was a blending of disparate elements, analogue and digital, subtle and overt.

I was reminded of his lesson in rewatching Saving Private Ryan. Much is made of its combat scenes, particularly the invasion of Normandy, yet there is more than gross spectacle here. Moments and touches, large and small, combine to achieve a greater effect.

The beach landing massacre begins almost immediately, with less bearing on the plot than you might expect. It’s an introduction to the time and place, and a casting call for the journey to come. In a feat of swift evolution, a varied selection of survivors emerges from the chaos of D-Day, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks).

It’s an unreal cast. The odds of director Steven Spielberg amassing this many (mostly-future) stars in a single project is mind-boggling: Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Ted Danson, Vin Diesel, Dennis Farina, Nathan Fillion, Paul Giamatti, Adam Goldberg, Leland Orser, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, and Tom Sizemore. Jeremy Davies (CQ) joins the core group later as an interpreter, our voice-of-reason surrogate.

Arguably the most familiar face plays subversively against type. Tom Hanks demonstrates little of his usual Jimmy Stewartism. His post-invasion assignment to locate Private Ryan is a frustrating distraction. He characterizes it as finding “a needle in a stack of needles”, derides it as “public relations”, grows to resent Ryan, and descends into a profane loathing that they “are not here to do the decent thing, [but] to follow fucking orders.” A modest, educated man, he is thrust into the lead, forced to do and justify horrific things. Afflicted with seizures, making fateful mistakes, he becomes especially aggressive when his weakness is revealed.

The filmmakers do an amazing job of manifesting the characters’ trauma. Their entropic experiences are communicated in various ways: changes in shutter speed, handheld footage, pyrotechnics, flashes of violence, and the editing style of it all. An oft-unsung hero of production is the sound design. Imagine the Omaha Beach scene without it; notice a later juxtaposition of raindrops and gunfire, thunder and explosions; feel the distance and loneliness suggested by a gramophone before the climactic battle.

I was particularly struck by such details. Simple strokes on a broader canvas add realism, depth, and uniqueness: the search for an edible apple, the $300 wager on the Captain’s personal life, an Allied soldier flaunting his Judaism to the Germans. Some touches are less incidental, more bittersweet diversions, like the remembrance of the Ryan brothers’ final gathering, or Reiben’s “breast” story which recalls a famous scene in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord.

Many of the details are undoubtedly dark. To his credit, Spielberg allows even the uncomfortable truths to creep in, however thoughtless, tragic, cowardly, and petty they may be: the regret of a soldier who deceived his mother, the hot potato passage of a bloodstained farewell, the shooting of surrendered enemies, and playing with dead soldiers’ dog tags. This world may only be “inspired by” history, but it still feels painfully real. There is no consistent karma here, no immanent justice.

Despite its sober depiction of freedom’s oft-forgotten costs, Saving Private Ryan leaves me feeling oddly uplifted. As grim as it gets, it’s not without moments of hope. As long as it runs, it’s never less than interesting. Truth and fiction, art and craft, agony and inspiration . . . to this day the movie remains a success for blending them all so well. Every viewing of it leaves me moved to live an appreciative life.

* * * * *

Rated 14A/R for disturbing scenes, language, and violence

170 minutes

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