Brad’s April Escape - Part 13
April 21 - Saving Private Ryan
Each weekday this month, I’ll screen a film from The Bearded Trio Cinematic Universe and list 10 random scenes, characters, musical cues or performances that I particularly enjoy and look forward to upon every viewing. I’d love to hear similar little things you enjoy about these films, and hope you join me in this escape from the present-day world.
Next up is a film that acts as a perfect complement to yesterday's post, Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Saving Private Ryan - An Introduction
Oliver Stone considers Nixon (1995) a sequel to JFK (1991). And that makes total sense. Same filmmaker, focusing on two historical individuals, who have enough common elements in their stories to be strongly linked.
I have been trying to justify, in my mind, a sequel connection between Schindler's List (1993) and today's focus, Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Reasons to sequel one to the other lie in the obvious. Both exist in the World War II era, but from very different angles. Taken chronologically, Ryan should come before List, since List takes us through the end of the war, while Ryan's story - aside form the grandfather interludes - ends one week after D-Day.
But maybe these two films exist as a sequel set due to the filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. There's no doubt Schindler's List represented a turning point in this man's career, as historical dramas began to become more and more common among his projects. He took four years off from the director's chair, the making of List impacted him so deeply.
He came back in 1997 with The Lost World, then tacked on Amistad (1997) in that same year. But in 1998, he returned to the 1940s with the seminal film, Saving Private Ryan. To me, it's the next natural evolutionary step for him from List. Only this time, we focus on the good guys, and on a smaller, micro-story set within the bigger stage of the war.
10 Things I Like - Saving Private Ryan
1. The film is bookended by the grandfather visiting the grave of Captain John Miller at Arlington National Cemetery. His family trails behind, at a respectful distance. Spielberg uses top-notch staging of his actors here, with the wife trailing behind first, followed by the parents and grand kids. Very authentic.
I'm not sure if anyone else thought this before seeing it in the theater, but I made the misguided assumption that the title of the film referenced the Tom Hanks character. But in typical Spielberg fashion, the person (or subject) you easily assumed the film to be about isn't about the easily assumed thing or person at all.
2. One of the most widely complimented aspects of the film is the Normandy Beach opening. Gary Rydstrom conducts a symphony of sound with the disembarking of American soldiers on the French beach on June 6, 1944. But the most stark moments of this sequence are like the one above, with no sound. There are two such sequences here, where we focus on Captain Miller, trying to make sense of the madness of war all around him while no sound emanates from the theater speakers.
There's kind of a hollow ringing sound present throughout here, isolating the audience's attention squarely on Miller, our protagonist. Our ears get a brief break while our eyes take on Miller, attempting to make sense of which cannot make any rational sense (war).
3. Bryan Cranston!
A decade before he was known as the meth cook the whole family could enjoy, he played a small part in the beginning of the film, helping to create the Ryan Task Force. Now that we have the luxury of hindsight, we can truly appreciate the unbelievable depth of acting talent this film had. More on that later.
4. The reveal of Matt Damon as Private Ryan was a surprise for the audience later on. But in my first viewing, our audience took the reveal of Ted Danson here as a pleasant surprise.
Few seemed to pick up that it was Danson early on in his sequence. Only when he removed his helmet, and his face was fully revealed, did it dawn on us who this was. Danson's inclusion here lent a great deal of credibility to this film, that if an actor of this caliber was playing a role this small in nature, we would be in for a treat.
Danson's line of "No I'm serious. Find him. Get him home" acts as affirmation for the audience that the Ryan Task Force mission is justified and right, something we are left to question upon its formation. Similar to how Yoda assures the audience of "truth" in the Star Wars films, Ted Danson plays a small, but reaffirming role in Ryan.
5. The Signature Spielberg Shot. I don't think Schindler's List belongs in a universe where Spielberg delivered his usual visual goods. The film was too important for that. And while Ryan has a similar gravitas of importance, Spielberg constructs another one of his unique shots for this transition scene.
The Ryan Task Force, in silhouette, walking in front of distant lightning in the French countryside. As with all Signature shots, it is not completely necessary, but a unmistakable visual signature of a maestro of film.
6. The scene where the task force is sorting through dog tags to try to identify Ryan is a pivotal moment. We, as the audience, have always taken the subject of World War II seriously. That was baked into this film. But for the characters, in-universe, they were slow to take their mission seriously. That changes when Wade sobers up the group to what they're doing, looking through dog tags while the surviving comrades walk on by. Appropriate in his role as a field medic, Wade acts as the conscience of this group early on, keeping them on the straight and narrow. Never more so than here.
7. My favorite scene in the film. The one where Reiben threatens to leave the group after Wade's death. Edward Burns and Tom Sizemore are certainly accomplished and skilled actors, but man, the animosity between these two here sure feels real. "You are a coward sonofabitch!" Horvath yells, and it still makes me uneasy in my chair watching it today.
Meanwhile, Captain Miller looks on in detached amusement, letting this drama play out for what feels like forever. He then immediately breaks the tension by resolving the "pool on the captain saying where he's from" mini plot. A tense, engaging, and kind of a funny scene.
8. "Hey, how about we introduce the title character of the film with a quick, in-motion camera pan from left to right, without stopping, 70 percent of the way into the film? Yeah, great idea!" - Steven Spielberg in story conferences, probably.
But man, this works. Matt Damon's character is the easily identifiable MacGuffin, the object of the search these characters are on. And we don't even realize Matt Damon is Matt Damon until the camera returns to him here, and focuses on him for a moment.
The title characters doesn't get this big, opening credit sequence reveal, as is the custom in many films. He's just...there. Simply another soldier among the many the task force has randomly encountered in its search.
Even as early as the summer of 1998, Damon was very visually identifiable as a rising movie star. Spielberg and his team have had a knack of casting actors just before they hit it big in many of his films. Many other actors kind of end up as cinematic one-hit wonders. But Ryan is a film that gives a platform to several actors who would find their greatest successes not necessarily in this film, but in projects that would come afterwards.Damon is the perfect example.
I analogize Matt Damon to Tiger Woods winning the 1997 Masters, or U2 playing Red Rocks in Denver, Colorado in 1983. You just knew you were watching greatness at its early stages. There seemed to be little doubt Damon would shoot to the top of the list of American actors, even in 1998, and that turned out to be true. No top 10 list of American actors is accurate or complete without Matt Damon's name.
9. My favorite member of the task force is Private Jackson, played here by Barry Pepper. In the first walk with the entire group, early in the film, Jackson brags about how he's such a good sharpshooter, he could single-handedly end the war by taking out Hitler.
Now naturally, any guy in his early 20s among his Army mates will look to make an impression. To try the Alpha Male hat on for size. He's also unique in that he's clearly from the south (Oklahoma) as opposed to the other members of the group, who emanate mostly from the northeast, particularly New York. Jackson is arguably the most skilled at his trade of anyone in the group.
In the shot pictured above, Jackson is in the belltower at Rammele, taking out one Axis solider after another. As a filmgoer, it's just cool to see a really skilled character at his absolute best. Think Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi. That's Jackson right here.
10. OK, so here, we bookend from the beginning.
In the film's open, we see Ryan (the grandfather) walking from screen left to right as he seeks out Captain Miller's grave. His wife is to our right and the rest of the family further back, again, a respectful distance away. He sees it, falters, stumbles to his knees in emotional overload upon its discovery. We zoom in on him and our story begins.
Now at the end, we see Ryan at full salute, Army strong as he gives a final salute to the man who led the group that saved his life. Only now, his wife is to our left instead of our right, with the family further back to the left, again, a respectful distance away.
Over the course of the film, events move across our minds, from a starting point to an ending point. I think we construct that journey individually. We all process things like this in ways that are unique to each of us. But Spielberg is playing that out here with his screen direction. Ryan's wife and family have moved, over the course of nearly three hours, from screen right to screen left while Ryan stays in place. He progresses from being on his knees, weak with memories and emotion, to tall and strong, saluting his captain in a way that would make anyone stationed at Fort Bragg proud. As the story progresses, so have these characters.
Brad’s Escapism Moment in Schindler's List
I mean, look at this cast list. This is the 201-02 Detroit Red Wings on film. You get high-quality actors at the beginning, middle and end of their publicly prominent careers, all dedicated to telling the story of the Greatest Generation.
The film contains minimal score from John Williams, lingering mostly at the beginning and end of the film. But what a testament to the talent and lack of ego of Williams, who doesn't feel the need to fill nearly three hours of film with his score when the sound and characters do the heavy lifting. Williams's Hymn to the Fallen carries us across Normandy, settling finally on the deceased body of Sean Ryan on the beach, setting a subtle tone for the mission to come.
In my Schindler's List post, I mention Oscars, and how that film properly honored Spielberg and Williams for their work. Well for some reason, Saving Private Ryan lost out to Shakespeare in Love for the Best Picture category in 1999.
I haven't watched more than two minutes of that show since.
Coming next: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.