Director Steven Spielberg is an artist who relies heavily on his knowledge of film history, film theory and the craft of making motion pictures to develop unique visual styles that are different for each and every one of his films. With Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980), Spielberg raided film archives to make a film that combined the tongue-in-cheek style of popular comic books with the building tension found in the old serial films of the 1940’s and 1950’s. With E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1983), Spielberg created a visual style that combined the romantic idealism common in classic films with action-packed scenes prevalent in the blockbusters of the time. With Jaws (1975), Spielberg utilized handheld camera shots with perfectly timed mechanical effects to create a suspenseful film that escalated tension up to the breathtaking climax. While each of these films displayed common Spielberg shots and styles, each had a ‘feel’ of its own that distinguished it from the director’s other work. The same can be said of Saving Private Ryan (1998). With this film, Spielberg created a World War II film that does not glamorize the brutalities of battle, but instead depicts them realistically in the same manner that a journalist or documentary filmmaker would. By carefully controlling shot selection, editing pace, cinematography, special effects, sound effects, sound effects editing, acting, and point of view, Spielberg creates a film that has much in common with the French new wave movement of filmmaking and the realism of documentary films.
Steven Spielberg’s use of the visual language in Saving Private Ryan, can most accurately be seen by examining the opening sequence of the film, which re-creates the D-day invasions of Normandy in June of 1944. The film has much in common with the styles utilized by documentary filmmakers. Spielberg strips away all traces of artificiality in the form of glossy crane and tracking shots; filters commonly used to give the images a look of perfection, and neatly organized framing. Instead, the director employs handheld camera shots that create shaky, blurry images that mimic the still photographs taken by Robert Cappa during the actual Normandy invasions. Spielberg ignores the urge to conveniently frame the action in beautiful compositions, and instead frames the action as photojournalist or maverick documentary filmmaker might with confused shots whose purpose is to record the action in as realistic and honest a fashion possible. The images and sounds in the film are intended to portray war in a truthful manner. Intended to pay respect to those who died for their country and to do so in a way that will allow those who have never experienced battle before to grasp just how horrible it really is.
Spielberg’s choices of shot selection in Saving Private Ryan, play a vital role in developing a visual style that accurately portrays the brutalities of war in an honest and truthful manner. In the opening Normandy invasion sequence of the film, Spielberg extensively utilizes handheld camera shots to record most of the action. This technique lends itself to the documentary style of the film because people relate the shaky, confusing images with those that are seen commonly in the nightly news, in documentary films and with consumer video cameras. This style is commonly associated with ‘real’ because it is stripped of all the artificiality that audiences are expectant of in studio films.
Spielberg also uses these types of shots because they more immediately insert the audience into the experience of the invasions. They transport the audience to the time and place of the invasions and put them on the ground next to all of the other soldiers whom are fighting for their lives and just trying to survive.
In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg’s use of editing technique is critical in accurately depicting the opening sequence of the film, the allied invasion of the beaches of Normandy. The film’s documentary-like visual style owes much to the way in which the film is edited. The utilization of jump cuts plays an important role in creating this style. Typically, transitions between shots are constructed so that audiences are not confused by the spatial and temporal implications of the cuts. In Saving Private Ryan, however, Spielberg aims for this confusion, cutting from explosions, images of violence, shots of fearful soldiers, first-person POV shots and other scenes of war in order to confront the audience with the brutal reality of war. This is used to ensure that the images and sounds shock the audience, Spielberg does not want them to get comfortable and deconstruct the images, but rather to experience them as if they are just another soldier fighting for their survival. Spielberg’s inclusion of shots that don’t ‘mean’ anything, random compositions that add to the confusion of the sequencing also help in developing the visual style of the film. These shots would normally detract from the dramatic pull of a narrative, but in this film they add to the sense of confusion and fear that Spielberg creates.
The cinematography of Saving Private Ryan also plays a vital part in establishing the visual style of the film. The images are largely inspired by still photographs taken by Robert Cappa during the actual invasion of the Normandy beaches. Those photographs were jittery, blurry and reflected the panic and fear of everyone involved in those battles.
Spielberg also relied on documentaries made during World War II, such as Why We Fight by Frank Capra, and the midway battle films made by John Ford. These films inspired Spielberg to tell a war story that depicted the action in a realistic manner. Spielberg also washed out the colors during the processing in order to strip away any form of artificiality that would derail this realistic approach to the subject matter. Nothing about the images screams “Hollywood” and in fact most of them do just the opposite, they paint life in a realistic manner. Tom Hanks is not made to look like the star that he is, but instead is shown as a battered man who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Spielberg stripped away all of the camera filters, gels, and in many cases placed sand and debris on the camera lens in order to give the film its gritty images and realistic tone. The cinematography of Saving Private Ryan plays an important role in developing the film’s visual style.
The special effects of Saving Private Ryan are used in a manner that is unobtrusive and add to the film’s visual style, which has a documentary feel. The effects include tracer bullets that can be seen zipping through the sky, air and land forces after the allied forces take the beach, and several other touchups added in the war sequences. However, the most important fact about the effects is that they are never used in order to spice up a shot, but instead are used to create the realism necessary for the opening sequences. Spielberg doesn’t add cg explosions just for the sake of adding them, but uses minor effects to enhance the sense of realism and give the film a more complete picture of war.
The sound effects and sound effects editing in Saving Private Ryan play a very crucial role in the opening sequences of the Normandy invasions. During these opening images there is no music, only sound effects. The sound effects enhance the action by making each and every bullet, explosion, and cry not only noticeable, but shatteringly realistic. It places the audience in the time and space of the action more completely by surrounding them not only with these horrible images of war, but also the sounds of war. Spielberg does not use music during this sequence because of his choice of visual style. His visual style most closely resembles a documentary film and adding music would undermine the power of the images. It would detract from the realism and provide emotional cues for the audience turning it into a spectacle rather than the experience that it is. The sound effects editing is also very crucial in this film because the sheer amount of sound effects requires that their overlapping and timing be just right in order to avoid having 30 minutes of jumbled noise. The editing of the sound allows Spielberg to create an opening sequence that involves the audience visually and viscerally by creating a memorable sequence that depicts the harsh realities of war.
The use of actors in Saving Private Ryan also lends itself to the documentary-like approach that creates the visual style of the film. Spielberg uses only two “stars” in the film, Tom Hanks and Matt Damon. However, these characters are not glamorized in the film as other stars are usually treated in films of the same genre. Typically, lead actors in war films are given the hero role, they are the ones who hold things together, they are strong as rocks and can deal with anything and everything that they encounter. In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’ character is a man who has seen too many battles and has suffered the consequences. He is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he questions himself and his role as leader throughout the film, and he refuses to open up to his troops, to talk to them on a personal level. Throughout the film he questions not only himself, but his mission and he is killed at the end of the film, making him a tragic character. Matt Damon also plays a man with problems. He learns that his brothers have been killed in combat and he too suffers emotional hardships. These characters are not perfect people; they are representations of the soldiers who actually fought in World War II. They are normal people placed in extraordinary circumstances and they react as normal people would. Spielberg uses relatively unknown actors for the rest of his cast, preferring to cast solid professional actors like Tom Sizemore, Ed Burns and Ted Danson to portray regular people who are dealing with these horrible experiences. Spielberg also prepared his actors in a very unique way. He had his lead cast take part in boot camp. The cast was required to endure one week of boot camp, similar to what men were required to accomplish before they were officially entered into the military. It was during this boot camp that Major Dale Dye, himself a former military man and also an actor, put the actors through hell. They ran every day; they slept in the mud, awoke at dawn and received military training. Half way through the camp, the cast became fed up with the harsh treatment and wanted to quit. It was Hanks who convinced them to stay and finish their task. He told them that the training would help them to discover the things that each and every one of the men who served in World War II experienced. This approach to the acting lends itself to the documentary-like style of the film because the characters are not supermen who conquer all and come out unscathed, but real people that have similar personalities of the men that would have been present at the actual invasions.
Spielberg’s use of POV in the opening sequence lend the film much of its impact and aid in its establishment of visual style. Much of the action is seen from first person perspective, although rarely does the audience know exactly whose viewpoint they are looking from. This gives the audience the feeling that every one of these soldiers were experiencing the same thing, it doesn’t matter who’s viewpoint we are looking from, because all of the men were just trying to survive and make it too the beach and out of the battle. Spielberg refrains from using artificial crane shots and smooth tracking shots commonly seen in big budget films because they would go against what he was trying to create; a realistic depiction of World War II. Instead he uses handheld footage throughout much of the opening action giving the audience and the camera the perspective of being in the action and part of the story.
The visual style of Saving Private Ryan, is one that resembles documentary films more than any other style. The opening sequence depicting the invasion of Normandy by the allied troops is a good example of this. The combination of shot selection, pace of editing, cinematography, special effects, sound effects editing, music, actors and POV’s create a scene that is more realistic than any war film ever made and even rivals documentary films in its realism and honesty. Spielberg is a unique artist who, here, takes advantage of the new wave film movement, which places emphasis on realism and shuns artificiality. This film establishes that style from the opening sequence and never lets up making it one of the most effective and truthful war films ever made.