Making a new art of war Steven Spielberg brings to the D-Day scene in his latest film not just grim reality but also an artistry that allows us to watch.

August 02, 1998|By ANN HORNADAY | ANN HORNADAY,SUN FILM CRITIC

Much is being made of the first 25 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan," the new World War II drama directed by Steven Spielberg. The sequence, which depicts the landing of American troops at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, is swiftly attaining legendary status.

The passage is a small masterpiece, a discrete set piece of power and terrible grace within the larger movie. Filmgoers may take or leave that movie, but they cannot deny the force of those 25 minutes. Spielberg isn't content merely to show us that blood was shed that day - he spurts it onto the camera lens.

Men don't die here and there to give the audience the "idea" of death - the bodies fall and keep falling, piling up in the sand and washing to shore with schools of dead fish. Destruction isn't just indicated, it is re-created, in the form of shredded flesh, disgorged entrails, sudden silences.

The hero - an Army Ranger captain played by Tom Hanks - is neither stoic nor smoothly competent. He's got the jitters. His hands shake. The carnage occasionally sends him into a dazed cocoon of silence until a grenade or a screaming soldier brings him to.

The verisimilitude of this battle sequence is such that military historian Stephen Ambrose had to stop the film at a private screening in order to collect himself. The Department of Veterans Affairs is so worried that World War II veterans will experience flashbacks that it has set up a hot line.

The opening passage of "Saving Private Ryan" is already being touted as "one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema," as a writer for the New Yorker put it.

He's right. But the power of the scene is only partly explained by its much talked-about realism - the achievement of which has been described in interviews with Spielberg and the movie's military adviser, Dale Dye.

What makes the scene work, what sends it into the ranks of the most indelible moments in cinema history, is the very opposite of reality: art.

It's precisely Spielberg's artistry - his ability to represent the violence aesthetically enough to make it accessible, but not so ,, much that it's denuded of meaning - that makes an otherwise unwatchable sequence not only watchable but thoroughly compelling, even beautiful. Reaching back to silent films, war documentaries, Orson Welles and 1960s cinema verite, Spielberg makes full use of cinema's technical capabilities and formal elements to create something completely original.

Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, filmed the action in a style as close to documentary as they could get. Trying to approximate the effect produced by old Bell & Howell movie cameras - the kind war photographers used in the 1940s - they stripped their camera lenses of prettifying coatings, and drained 60 percent of the color out of the negative. The result is a dry, harsh, flat look reminiscent of the newsreels of the day.

The film is by no means colorless. Even at their flattest, the blues, greens and grays of Spielberg's D-Day resonate with tremendous expressive power. Against them, the barriers scattered along the beach stand out in sculptural relief. As the battle rages, the lens becomes dirty, rendering the soldiers in a ,, nimbus of smeared light.

The men themselves, whose dolorous, expressive faces are shown in a series of highly modeled close-ups, become coated in a powdery green patina like that of aged bronze. They become monumentalized before our eyes.

According to the filmmakers, much of the D-Day sequence was filmed with hand-held cameras, in order to capture and reflect the chaos of the events. But as "random" as such an approach may seem, it's one guided by a fine artistic hand.

For one thing, Kaminski shuttered his camera in such a way as to create deep focus - a film technique wherein subjects in the foreground and background are shown in equal clarity, allowing for an image to be composed in depth. (Deep focus was most famously used by Welles in "Citizen Kane.")

The use of deep focus gives every detail of the image a crystalline clarity. A bullet wound can be "read" as clearly as the bruise on a sharpshooter's thumbnail. Combined with the frenetic movements of the hand-held camera, not only is every bullet seen and felt, but the action on the beach unfolds with a jerky, pixilated jumpiness reminiscent of silent films.

Here and there, Spielberg films in slow motion, but it's not in the manner of Sam Peckinpah, whose stylized "blood ballets" of "The Wild Bunch" begat a generation of aesthetically distanced violence in the movies. Rather, it allows us to take a collective breath. In this subtle way, Spielberg reminds us, almost unconsciously, that we are watching a movie.

As perfectly assembled as the visual images are in the D-Day scene (editor Michael Kahn no doubt deserves credit for the scene's impeccable pacing), the sequence has another important author: sound designer Gary Rydstrom.

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