Grievances with Saving Private Ryan: Important Aspects

I’ve discussed the pragmatism that should inform cinematography. It should be used as a tool, as a means, not an end unto itself. That realization is important in all movies. I value a certain economy where all the parts of the production work together powerfully. Because so much is repeated and repeated in Saving Private Ryan. As is said in the movie, it’s really not about the men in the mission because “the mission is a man.” And that just seems like a recipe for redundancy on the road to making an economical movie. (I'll note that in the best war movies the mission is always about the men, the human face of war, something which doesn't seem to be the case in Saving Private Ryan, but that's a story for another time.)

To draw out the problems I’d like to compare similar scenes from similar movies, Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). I know that these are two similar movies because they both star Tom Sizemore and are movies that take pains to show, convincingly, military tactics and combat realities. But Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan are totally different experiences. Black Hawk Down has a strong sense of pacing and a definite vision behind every, although often brief, shot. Saving Private Ryan plods through long take after long take which opens each moment up to redundancy and out of economy.

Miller's ears start to ring. This is a prefiguring of a mid-career "Spielberg Face" or what some have called "an expression of trauma in a world of perpetual danger." This face makes sense here, but the sequence is a poor token of this type of scene.

Miller's ears start to ring. This is a prefiguring of a mid-career "Spielberg Face" or what some have called "an expression of trauma in a world of perpetual danger." This face makes sense here, but the sequence is a poor token of this type of scene.

Early on in Saving Private Ryan, as Miller moves up the beach, there’s an explosion and his ears start to ring. The camera dollies in as this happens providing a classic example of the ‘Spielberg Face’ and an opportunity to show some details of the scene. We see men in a fire, a man searching for his severed arm, a man cowering behind a tank trap, and a man yelling at Miller; “what the hell do we do now, sir!” Finally the sound returns.

An extra who embodies a youthful 1940s look casually deployed. Straight from central casting.

An extra who embodies a youthful 1940s look casually deployed. Straight from central casting.

I don’t really like this scene. It begins with a very long, dollying take, that is one shot providing way more information than it was intended to. Then for this brief sequence we pack in even more information about the setting. I’m only a few minutes into this movie, I’m well aware of the action, I need to know about the characters. In this scene one can’t help but notice that the aspect ratio, which at 1.85:1 is tall, and allows the camera to take in way more of the window dressing and negative space in the scene. Such aspects, the size of the frame, the length of each shot, and the length of the scene itself, make the sequence all about the setting and make the character secondary. That’s not what is needed so early in the picture. I want more character right now and less compelling reality violence. And yet they used the ears ringing moment twice in much the same, overwrought capacity.

A scene like this is all too common in movies with explosions. Its assumed purpose is to put the viewer in the action and that’s fine for a little while, but it’s best used with a thematic vigor. In Children of Men (2006) ears ringing is used as motif of senescence, thus earning its repeated use. I think the visual repetitions in Saving Private Ryan are too minor to be so deeply thematic.

In Black Hawk Down the ears ringing scene is used once with similar, deeper, multifarious purposes. Grimes (Ewan McGregor) is knocked over in one of his early combat experiences by an RPG. A cut to an extreme close up on his eye introduces the viewer immediately to Grimes’s perspective rather than gradually introducing the perspective with the dolly. Director Ridley Scott does in an instant with editing what Spielberg spent seconds doing with a camera move. Everything becomes heightened, so the sudden introduction of another, single character here and not a wealth of information creates a strong connection between these characters and emphasis on what they will do next. There’s almost as many different shots as the Saving Private Ryan sequence here in a third of the time. And there’s perhaps more and more important information applicable to the entire film. The idea of brotherhood in the line of fire is a the thematic center of Black Hawk Down and the sequence. That demonstrates a real economy. There’s a certain rhythm to Black Hawk Down that is stylistically strong and drives the movie forward.

"I can hear the bells ringing." A scene from Black Hawk Down.

"I can hear the bells ringing." A scene from Black Hawk Down.

The next pair of scenes from these movies is even more difficult to deal with; these are two scenes of field surgery. The scene from Saving Private Ryan where the troops take a hill and Wade dies must be my least favorite of the entire movie. On the other hand, the brief field surgery scene in Black Hawk Down is powerful and sticks with me long after each viewing. But again the difference between the two really is the difference between prolonged chaos and terse meaning.

In the Saving Private Ryan iteration of this scene, we see the medic, Wade is shot. He’s bleeding heavily and the whole crew surrounds him. The idea is that Wade “tell [them] how to fix [him].” The soldiers put pressure on his wounds, Wade worries about his liver. It’s all these spoken details which really make this scene a bore to watch. After all, what can I possibly know about Wade’s liver? What can Wade know about his own liver from his current point of view? Saying “put pressure on the wound,” especially so repeatedly, ceases to have the sense of emergency as Wade fades (another moment which could be contrasted with Children of Men by the way). Of course he is past hope; “I could use a little more morphine” he tells them. And they give him dose after dose until he fades. Every action and line is literally iterated and reiterated until it is over determined.

In Black Hawk Down the medic explains the situation to Eversmann (Josh Hartnett); they need to clamp this man’s femoral artery which has retracted towards his pelvis. That sounds jargon heavy, and it is. But what I like about the scene in general is that the majority of dialog becomes a jumble of “I’ve got it” and “yeah” and “hold it” types of lines, meanwhile there is strong visualization of the procedure. The visuals and the dialogue make sense together, the power and economy of the scene is clearly understandable. This is a scene designed for a movie, we see the artery and hear the soldiers discussing things they, and the audience, all already know about. Again the scene is brief, cut quickly when, for the sake of action, time is of the essence but then more calmly when the emotional blows hit.

Some of the structural difference between these films which have such overwhelming similarities are as simple as the aspect ratio. Saving Private Ryan uses a tall, 1.85:1 aspect, Black Hawk Down uses a tighter 2.35:1 aspect. What this means though is that Scott can direct what the viewer sees more carefully because fewer things can fit into the tighter screen; the wides become very wide and the closeups become incredibly intimate. Saving Private Ryan becomes so much more about the window dressing and what is going on around the subject of the frame, scenes are drawn out and most shots are a vague. I could be more moved by Saving Private Ryan if it sharpened it’s view by showing me one important subject per frenetic shot. I might be more interested in the characters if the aspect ratio brought me closer to their space with a tighter frame. Black Hawk Down manages these things, Saving Private Ryan falls flat.

Black Hawk Down takes advantage of the aspect ratio to make close-ups closer and wide-shots wider.

Black Hawk Down takes advantage of the aspect ratio to make close-ups closer and wide-shots wider.

There are any number of similarities between Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan. Many very specific parallels. But Black Hawk Down seems to me to have more consideration of what these elements should be in a movie, how a compelling image of combat should be paired with the frame, editing, indeed the entire construction of a film; the effect all these things have together rather than simply alone. And that’s important.