The House Next Door is having an absolutely fantastic blog-a-thon right now that every film nut should read and participate in. The theme is 'The Close Up', and runs until October 21. There are some really great entries, and I am learning a ton from others who report their favorite tight shots and why they are effective.
My entry comes from Steven Spielberg's war epic Saving Private Ryan. While there could be many selections from this great and powerful film, I chose two shots that are linked, but not in the way a first time viewer might suspect. If you have not seen this movie (what?), I suggest you stop reading as this post contains a major spoiler. Watch it first!
The first shot is at the very beginning of the film when we see an older gentlemen walking with his family toward the graves of fallen war vets in France. We see both American and French flags, so it's safe to assume this is Normandy, the site of the D-day invasion of 1944.
The old man (Harrison Young), walks through many headstones until he comes across one, then falls to his knees, weeping. His family rushes to his side.
The camera slowly pushes in...
The old man looks up, and the camera continues to creep closer...
Finally stopping on an extreme close up of his eyes, which fill the frame.
This is our intro to a flashback to some of the most harrowing images captured on film, a reenactment of the D-day Invasion on what the Americans called Omaha Beach. This is the sequence this film is most remembered for, and you won't soon forget it, either.
It's here we are introduced to our core group of solidiers, led by Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks).
Once they have completed their mission and regroup on the beach head, Miller stops to take a drink from his canteen...
The camera again pushes in...
Right into Miller's eyes.
It's clear from these matching shots that Spielberg wants us to assume the two men are the same person. Not only is the camera move identical, but the final close up is almost a carbon copy. As those of you who have seen this film know, this is a cinematic deception. The old man is not Miller, but the Private Ryan (Matt Damon) of the title.
Why does he do this? The reason is clear, and just more evidence of Speilberg's genius behind the lens (I'm not sure if screenwriter Robert Rodat had a hand in this, but I should give him credit anyway). When we assume Miller is the old man, we attach to him, thinking that he has already survived this grueling tale of combat and sacrifice. When he is killed in the final battle, we are shocked. How can he die? He's the old man! As Private Ryan comes to his aid, Miller's final poignant line is uttered--"Earn this", and Ryan morphs into the old man, back at the grave he first knelt at. It's the grave of Capt. John Miller.
What's really interesting is that we also assume the old man was at Omaha Beach, since he seems to be flashing back to it. We learn later he was a paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines, and never even saw Omaha. When the beach has been captured, we see a long shot ending in a close up a fallen soldier with the name Ryan inscribed on his backpack. Could this be the old man imagining how his brothers died? We know Miller and crew are real, since they rescue Ryan and he survives, but what about everything else?
Whatever the reason, it's a pair of very effective close ups in a very effective (and affecting) film.