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Why do Tom Hanks' hands shake in 'Saving Private Ryan'?

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 war drama Saving Private Ryan is widely acknowledged as one of the most harrowing and realistic depictions of war ever made. Based on the Invasion of Normandy which took place in World War Two, the film follows a group of soldiers on their mission to save paratrooper Private First Class James Francis Ryan, played by Matt Damon.

The graphic and heart-breaking portrayal of war is hard to watch, especially with the knowledge that the film is based on traumatic true events. In order to maintain this horrifying realism to the highest degree, extreme attention was paid to the details of each character’s mannerisms. Most notably, Tom Hanks character Captain John H. Miller is frequently shown with trembling hands, which are often framed in close-up shots.

It is noteworthy that the introduction of Hank’s character is through an emphasis on these shaking hands as he opens up a flask while travelling towards the Normandy beaches. This is one of the first shots that establish an individual soldier amongst the masses of men all crammed into the boat. The fact that a close-up shot of Hank’s hands is prioritised over a facial close-up signifies the importance of acknowledging the side-effects of war that manifest in such physical symptoms.

His shaky hands can immediately be identified as a symptom of intense anxiety, caused by the anticipation of warfare, intensified by previous memories of fighting. It is clear that Captain Miller has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), yet he must launch himself into battle regardless. This early scene serves to establish the trauma of war, initiating an emotional response in the audience that will only be perpetuated more intensely as the film progresses.

A touching scene in Saving Private Ryan comes when Miller’s men notice his shaking hands as he gets out a map to help guide his group. While Miller tries to ignore his instability, the men are framed in medium close-ups as they each come to realise how intense Miller’s tremors are. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński frequently keeps Miller’s hands in frame, out of focus, while the emphasis is placed on his men’s concerned faces. Then, Miller’s face is shown in close-up as he realises that everyone has noticed his shaky hands. It’s a heartbreaking scene that highlights Miller’s need to try and suppress his emotions in order to carry out his duties.

The church scene is another that highlights the shakiness of Miller’s hands. The fact that his hands are shown so often suggests that Spielberg desperately wanted to convey the reality of war and the widespread suffering of PTSD that came with fighting, being forced to kill, and witnessing countless deaths. In fact, the film achieved these aims a little too well, with many combat veterans unable to finish it, and their visits to counsellors, particularly for PTSD therapy, rose significantly. A nationwide hotline was even set up for veterans in need of support after watching the film.

The church conversation between Hanks’ Miller and Tom Sizemore’s Technical Sergeant Mike Horvath provides a moment of calm in comparison to the intense violence of the rest of the film. Bathed in yellow candlelight, Horvath asks Miller about his shaky hands, to which he replies it “comes and goes” and started back in Portsmouth. Horvath tells him that he “may have to get himself a new line of work” as “this one doesn’t seem to agree with you anymore.” It’s a simple yet saddening line, and the audience is forced to acknowledge that these men had no choice but to risk their lives and forever live with the memories of unfathomable atrocities.

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