Windows to the Soul: The Eyes of 'Saving Private Ryan'

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.


Anonymous said…
Wandered over from HOTD...nice article, but I couldn't disagree more. Aside from feeling that the bookends are useless and the worst kind of Spielberg's tendency to cheap-seats sentimentality, this shot is completely manipulative, and for me undermined the effect of Hanks' death, since I was so pissed off about the trickery. If the movie is good (as I believe the movie to be) then Hanks' death is going to be surprising and moving no matter what. (And on a meta level, it's always surprising when the big name is killed off.)
Jeff McMahon said…
I'm happy to disagree. The bookends are crucial to the film's overall meaning, to connect the sacrifice of these soldiers to our lives today. Without the bookends, the movie is a history lesson. With the bookends, Spielberg maintains the connection with contemporaneity. The ending is only superficially sentimental - peel that away and the movie ends on a note of fragility, mourning, and even a hint of uncertainty.

Furthermore, these closeups are a deception, but a useful and brilliant one. I'm going to be bold and say that there's something wrong with anyone 'pissed off' about the trickery, because it means you aren't seeing the movie's forest for it's trees. Hanks's death is a lot more surprising thanks to this cinematic slight of hand.
Burbanked said…
I don't so much mind the cinematic deception of the close-ups, because for whatever reason the first time I saw SPR, I was not surprised by Miller's death.

Much more, I mind the movie's bookends because Ryan can't possibly have related 60% of the movie's most emotional, pivotal events through flashback because he wasn't there! He wasn't on Omaha Beach with the others, he wasn't there for the deaths of Vin Diesel and Giovanni Ribisi's characters, etc.

It's a very, very good film and the bookends could possibly have been modified to accommodate this complaint (such as by including Ed Burns' character - the only other guy who does experience these events and live to tell about them) - but it's this conceit that I think plays up Spielberg's overly sentimental trick here, not the matching close-ups.
Scott Eggleston said…
Now that you mention it, Burbanked, what makes you think he's flashing back to Omaha Beach? Could the beginning of his "memory" start at the point where he meets Miller, and the audience is just given more backstory?

I like how Spielberg toys a bit with us and our expectations of the cinematic language. The camera pushes into the old man's eyes, then cuts to D-day, so we assume he is having a flashback, but why? Because we've been conditioned to do so. Couldn't the entire film be Miller's flashback, with Ryan being a part of it?

I don't feel that Spielberg is being overly manipulative, but he does manipulate us, just like any other filmmaker in any other movie does to an acceptable degree. The death of Miller is the movie's one unexpected twist (for me, anyway) in a pretty straightforward story.
Burbanked said…
It's a decent point, Scott - that the film really doesn't have to be a flashback at all, or at least not a flashback of Ryan's specifically. But Spielberg uses the conventions - the visual cues - of a flashback without subverting them. In other words, there's no reason for us not to assume it's a flashback, even after it's over. Later? With more time to ruminate and view it again? Maybe, but that's being pretty generous.

It's one thing for a movie like The Usual Suspects to frame a story in flashback and then to completely turn everything around - it makes us question the trick immediately, makes us contemplate our expectations and our conditioned thinking. But I think that SPR is more an example of a very, VERY strong movie framed by a rather lazy screenwriting crutch.
Scott Eggleston said…
I'm sure you're right (it's the simplest explanation), but it's fun to speculate.