Sunday, June 7, 2009

Don't Make a Scene: Saving Private Ryan

The Story: "Could you do that?" That was the question. I sat across from another recording studio engineer, just a shade younger with a wife and kids. "Could you do that?" We had both just seen "Saving Private Ryan" and after marvelling at the technical skill of the thing, and focusing on the D-Day sequence, we both got quiet. We told our war stories, or rather our father's war stories.

"Could you do that?" And we both looked at each other as men and wondered. It was a different time. Folks wanted to believe their government. that they were fighting the Good Fight, and even without the knowledge of The Holocaust, it was obvious that Hitler was a menace, and he would have to be fought, if not there, then here.

And the answer is: there isn't an answer. We were lucky enough to be able to ask the question, a luxury our fathers didn't have. The answer is: you might not have a choice. You would have to. Among the blood and the guts and mud and no sleep and bad food and seeing your buddies dying and all the rest, you would have to. And you marvel at the fathers and brothers who did do that and now also, the wives and mothers and sisters.

They're us. They're the Shield. They're the Sword.

But they're us.

I loved this simple scene of relationships in war-time, the existing and the passed, and how one of those common people in charge of the lives of kids lives with the responsibility—copes with the charge. How does he live with the line-up of dead faces he's seen, that he's ordered into the teeth of battle?

The Higher Good. The Greater Cause. For Captain Miller, it's his job. If he does it successfully, just like his civilian job, he can go home. And that's all there is to it. It's a great scene and Hanks throws all his comic timing into it, despite the lack of humor. The moment he reveals the number of kids he's lost in command, is a little miracle of timing and nuance. The way when he starts laughing at the memory of Vecchio, and he takes a glance back at his troop to make sure he's not waking anybody up (the Medic is awake, grabbing the only time he has to make good the slain Carpazo's letter to his family) is a great moment of selfishness and unselfishness combined. It's a respite from the trudging march of death, there in the rubble of a church. There, 55 years ago today, on the night following D-Day.

The Set-Up: Captain Miller's (Tom Hanks) new orders, having just secured a beach-head at Normandy is to find the one remaining son of a family who has four in the service. They don't know where he is, or where to find him, and they have the worst place to look for a missing person--in the heat of battle. Of the men on the mission, they've already lost Carpazo (Vin Diesel) to a sniper's bullet. And while cadging a couple hours sleep in the relative protection of a church, Miller sums up the day with Sgt. Horvath (Tom Sizemore).

It starts as a lot of scenes start in "Saving Private Ryan"--with a tremor in Miller's hand.

Horvath: What’s with your hand?

Miller: I dunno. Started in Portsmouth when they brought us down for embarkation, and it comes and goes.

Horvath: Well, you may have to get yourself a new line of work. This one doesn’t seem to agree with you any more.

(Miller starts to laugh)
Horvath: What? What?

Miller: What was the name of that kid?

Miller: Anzio, the one that was always walkin’ 'round on his hands, and he was always singin’ that song, ya know, about the Man on the Flying Trapeze?

Horvath: Vecchio...

Miller: Vecchio! Yeah. Yeah, Vecchio.

Miller: He was a goofy kid.

Horvath: ‘Member he used to pee a "V" on everybody’s jacket? For Vecchio. For Victory.

(Miller cracks up, they're both laughing now)
Horvath: He was short.
(In the corner, by the light of a flashlight, the Medic is re-copying Carpazo's letter home to a sheet of paper without blood on it.)

Miller: He was a midget, wasn’t he?

Horvath: How’d he get to be a Ranger? Got shot in the foot once, and he was walking on his hands?

Miller: Yeah, well, he could walk faster on his hands. He could run faster on his hands than…(Horvath cracks up)

Miller: Vecchio. Yeah. Caparzo.

Miller: You see, when you end up killing one of your men, you see...

Miller: tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of 2 or 3 or 10 others. Maybe a hundred others.

Miller: Do you know how many men I’ve lost under my command?
Horvath: How many?

Miller: 94.

Miller: But that means I’ve saved the lives of ten times that many, doesn’t it? Maybe even 20, right? Twenty times as many?

Miller: And that’ simple it is. That’s how you…

Miller: ...that’s how you rationalize making the choice between the mission and the men.

Horvath: Except this time the mission is a man.

Miller: This Ryan better be worth it. He’d better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting lightbulb or something... ‘cause the truth is I wouldn’t trade ten Ryans for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.

Horvath: Amen.

Miller: Look. There it goes again.
Horvath: Sir. Are you alright?
Miller: Now, look, we’re gonna move out in two hours. Why don’t you get some sleep?

"Saving Private Ryan"

Words by Robert Rodat

Pictures by Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg

"Saving Private Ryan" is available on DVD from Dreamworks Home Video

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