04 December 2011

Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan is a war movie immersed in the events of WWII. Directed by Steven Spielberg, it stars Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Tom Sizemore. As women are typing the death telegrams to the mothers of soldiers, one woman takes notice of a name that she has come across a couple of times: Ryan. She holds in her hands three death notices that will be sent to the mother of these three soldiers and decides to tell her supervisor about it. After General Marshall is informed of this, he orders the fourth Ryan brother, Private James Ryan, if found alive to be sent home. The only problem that remains is to find him and bring him home, alive.

The use of onscreen and offscreen space is essential to a good war movie. In war, there are constant sounds of gunshots, grenades, tanks and dying men. Saving Private Ryan focuses on the extreme close-ups of the faces of the soldiers as they experience what exists in the offscreen space. The movie opens up to an elderly man walking along a long path with a group of people behind him. He turns and walks to a tree and stares off into the distance, off towards the American and French flags billowing in the wind. As he slowly walks across the lawn, the camera passes behind the rows of crosses that represent the lives of the soldiers lost in WWII. Suddenly he stops and collapses at one of the crosses. It is here that our flashback begins. The camera zooms in on the old man’s eyes, and we are brought to the place that he is now reliving.

The flashback takes us to June 6, 1944; landing crafts are transporting Allied troops to Omaha beach. Captain John H. Miller is crouching dazed on the edge of the water. As he is looking around, sometimes we follow his line of vision, but other times we are held in an extreme close-up of his face. The camera remains on his disorientation and his focus as he tries to make sense of what is going on. Later, as our men finally get off the beach and up to higher land, the camera begins to jump from soldier to soldier, mainly focusing on their faces. We are forced to watch Mellish cry, and then we watch the reactions to the soldiers around the crying Mellish. We then see Captain Miller, and as we hear some soldiers say, “That’s quite a view,” Captain Miller looks up and the camera zooms in on his eyes. We are forced to take in the devastation of what we are about to see by looking first at the face of Captain Miller. A few seconds later we are allowed the sight of what the soldiers are seeing: bodies lying lifelessly in the water, being softly swayed back and forth by the bloody tide; destruction.

Later on, when Captain Miller’s company finally finds the correct Private Ryan, they are unable to convince him to leave his company to return home. Captain Miller and his remaining men, along with Private Ryan, stay to protect the bridge in Ramelle. For a short while, the soldiers are planning and plotting and setting up for the time that the Germans arrive. Then, as the men are sitting on the front porch of a building, everyone perks up and we must wait to figure out exactly what they are hearing. The soldiers turn off the radio and they find out from the watchtower that tanks are on their way. As the men scramble into positions, we are forced to listen to the dull rumble of the approaching tanks. As the two guys on the rabbit return, everyone is left wondering if the Germans will take the bait or not. With the incessant dull hum of the approaching tanks, the camera focuses on the glance shared between Ryan and Reiben. As these men look at one another, Reiben gives a short nod and the men look back down the alley to await the tanks.

Finally, Allied reinforcements arrive, but not until after Miller has been mortally wounded. General Marshall’s voice can be heard reading the letter to Mrs. Ryan explaining that her youngest son is on his way home. The camera finally turns to capture Ryans face with slight tears forming in his eyes. It is with that same closeup on Private Ryan’s face that brings us out of our flashback. We leave the young Private Ryan looking down at the now lifeless body of Miller and we return to the senior Private James Ryan who is looking down at the cross with Captain Miller’s name upon it. That connection makes senior Ryan’s final statements that much more powerful: “I hope that at least in your eyes, I have earned what you all have done for me.”

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