Tom Hanks has been described as a Hollywood Everyman, an actor who elevates the ordinary to an art form. Maybe that's why Steven Spielberg chose him for the lead in "Saving Private Ryan." The movie's message is that World War II was won not by gung-ho, over-the-top heroes, but by brave, frightened civilians who somehow got the job done.
The first time we see Hanks clearly, he's on Omaha Beach trying to exercise leadership in a chaotic situation, with the dead and dying piled all around him. Throughout the film, we never feel we're watching a movie hero; his Captain Miller was once a civilian, is now in command and is trying desperately to do the best he can.
"The reality is that only 10 percent of the guys who went ashore on D-Day were combat veterans," Hanks told me during a Chicago visit last week. "Miller is one of them because he'd already seen some hideous action in Italy, so he is a terrified man because he is an experienced man. He has no naïveté that says it's going to be easy.
"Larger-than-life characters make up about .01 percent of the world's population. By and large, it was all elbows and asses on that beach, guys scared to death. Maybe if you're really good, you're able to operate on pure instinct as opposed to pure panic. We won the war because of ordinary guys who did the right thing at the right time."
The landing in France, which occupies the first 30 minutes of the film, was a bloodbath. But that's not the way it was portrayed to the folks back home. The film's story line is about a sentimental gesture: an attempt, in the face of carnage everywhere, to spare a private named Ryan because three of his brothers had already died. The top brass think that will look good in the papers and help civilian morale. But it makes no sense to Captain Miller and his men, who have to risk their lives in a public relations gesture.
When they find Ryan, I said, and decide to stay with him and help defend the bridge, they're bringing meaning to a situation that until then had been absurd.
"Yes," Hanks said. "And you might wonder why they make that decision. We always had this problem with the story: Why do they stay? There are two lines of dialogue that made everything work, as far as I was concerned. One is said by Private Ryan: 'These are the only brothers I have left.' The other is said by my character: 'Things have taken a turn for the surreal here.' All rules are off and nothing makes sense anymore and this is the last thing we should be doing, but yet we're going to do it."
When Spielberg sent his cast through a week of basic training, only Hanks knew what they were in store for.
"I'd worked with (Marine drill sergeant) Dale Dye in 'Forrest Gump'; he trained me for the Vietnam sequences. I went in knowing that it would be a full-blown experience and Dye was not going to compromise for a moment. The other guys, I think, were anticipating camping in the woods and maybe learning a couple of things and sitting around the campfire.
"By the time the third day came around, it was cold and miserable and people began to get sick and they just didn't understand how getting yelled at by this gray-haired guy was going to make them better actors. But in the course of this meeting we had, I said, 'Look, this is our rehearsal. Never again on this movie will we have it all to ourselves; we've got our characters, we've got the equipment, we've got stuff to learn and it's not about dialogue. It's about our own individual motivations and monologues.'
"And Dale Dye said, 'You guys aren't just actors putting on some uniform and running around on the beach saying pow, pow, I got you. You're embodying the lives and uniforms of men who did something for real, and you're not going to do them dishonor.' He said this while we're all standing in the freezing rain, and there was no arguing with that."
Perhaps as a result, the ensemble acting in "Saving Private Ryan" is seamless and convincing, and the actors project a weariness and an underlying despair: It is good to know you're doing the right thing but no comfort to know you'll quite possibly get killed.
One of the film's technical advisers was Stephen Ambrose, whose books about the landings in France paint a different picture than the glory in the old Hollywood movies. What made Ambrose mad, Hanks said, is the notion that soldiers "never knew what hit them." There was nothing about suffering terrible wounds and waiting in the mud, wet and cold for hours with your blood draining out.
"I've never even seen movies where guys threw up on the landing craft," he said. "In Ambrose's books, you learn these guys were ankle-deep in seawater and vomit. They'd been out there for four hours in flat-bottomed landing craft in heavy seas. And they were told that Omaha Beach would be a lunar wasteland by the time they got there. The B-17 bombers were going to pulverize the defensive position so badly that the physical landmarks weren't even gonna be there. "But in reality, the B-17s dropped their bombs deep inside France and might have killed some cows and that's about it. So everything went wrong from the very first moment. "The first day of shooting the D-Day sequences, I was in the back of the landing craft, and that ramp went down and I saw the first 1-2-3-4 rows of guys just getting blown to bits. In my head, of course, I knew it was special effects, but I still wasn't prepared for how tactile it was. The air literally went pink and the noise was deafening and there's bits and pieces of stuff falling all on top of you and it was horrifying."
Maybe the first third of the movie is what makes the final third so compelling. Knowing what they'd been through, knowing what they were surely going to go through again, Captain Miller and his men don't choose the easy way out. Their war had gone too far to justify, any longer, a public relations gesture.