DreamWorks // 1998 // 169 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // October 3rd, 1999
In the Last Great Invasion of the Last Great War, The Greatest Challenge for Eight Men was Saving...One.
Steven Spielberg has done it again. He has created what is easily the greatest WWII movie ever, and arguably the greatest war movie of all time.
I have to begin with a confession. I never saw Saving Private Ryan in the theater. Notwithstanding all my friends' protestations, I really believe my home theater experience is better 99% of the time than the local cinema. This is probably one movie I should have seen on the big screen. Nevertheless, my point is I came to this disc with no prior experience with the film. It is an awesome display of the filmmaking talent of perhaps the greatest director of our time -maybe all time.
As you are no doubt aware, Saving Private Ryan tells the story of a group of soldiers who, after landing on the beach at Normandy are ordered to go deep into the countryside to "rescue" a Private whose mother has just received word that her three other sons were killed in action the previous week. For two and a half hours we are treated to witnessing the evolution of relationships and dealing with emotions as men wonder about the worth of their mission, and whether the life of one man they have never met is worth the risk they face.
But it's the first half hour that captivates us. The first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan is the most realistic action sequence of any portrayal of war. It approximates, as much as any movie can, the horrors of war and will remain a living, breathing testament to the WWII generation for the rest of us for decades to come. Being only 33, I could only imagine what my forefathers endured for the cause of Freedom. We fought no war like the Big One. I was a kid during Vietnam. I wasn't even born when we fought the Korean War. I doubt anyone could seriously put the Gulf War in the same category as WWII.
There is one moment in the film that I found more poignant than nearly any other, and it is vintage Spielberg. Somehow, some way, he always finds a way to humanize the moment and put things into perspective. The moment I speak of is the scene where dozens and dozens of middle age women are typing condolence telegrams to be sent to parents around the country the day after D-Day. I can't think of another director who would think to linger as we do in that room. That one scene serves so many purposes in so many ways it is almost impossible to dissect completely. It calms us down and brings us back into the human world after living through the hell that was D-Day. It sets us up plot-wise for the remainder of the film. It gives a touch of scale to the carnage that was D-Day. It shows us the one government worker in the history of the world with more than a modicum of common sense (the women who recognizes the similar names and addresses of the three telegrams of the Ryan brothers). It shows a caring military top-level chain of command. It humanizes the reason why we fought that war. In short, it was masterful. And Spielberg does it nearly every time. If there is one thing I am grateful for within him it is this gift.
However, let's admit it, the first 30 minutes of this film is what makes it what it is. Absent that beach landing sequence, this movie is little more than another war movie with a less than perfect premise. I seriously doubt anything like this ever would happen in the midst of the most important campaign in the history of the world. But, with that sequence, it is clearly the greatest WWII movie ever made, and arguably the greatest war movie of all time. Personally, I find Glory a more compelling story and a better movie, but I know many of you disagree. Thankfully, we have the right to disagree with each other, a right that winning WWII helped to secure.
The acting here is generally top notch. Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, Philadelphia, Forest Gump) plays Captain John Miller, the flawed hero of the film who leads his troops inland to recover Private Ryan. Hanks plays Miller as barely holding it together throughout the film and again gives him a human side. Contrasted with the "perfect" if slightly flawed John Wayne heroes of old, we see a more realistic portrayal of war and the consequence of war. Tom Sizemore (The Relic, Heat) plays Sergeant Mike Horvath and absolutely steals the show as a man committed to his duty and who will not suffer fools lightly. The cast is rounded out by terrific performances by Edward Burns (She's The One, The Brothers McMullen), Barry Pepper (Enemy of the State, Firestorm), Adam Goldberg (The Prophecy, Higher Learning), Matt Damon (Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting) and more.
The audio of this disc is the real star. Saving Private Ryan won two Oscars for Sound and Sound Effects Editing and they were well deserved. The sound is carried forth onto this DVD with aplomb. The aggressive use of surrounds and LFE channel were unbelievable and contribute to the overall feeling that war is hell, especially during the opening sequence. Also of important note here is the Oscar nominated score by John Williams. The score is terrific and sweeping in context and beautiful in its own right. This is one CD I have to pick up to add to my collection.
The video elements are intriguing to say the least. Janiusz Kaminski, the cinematographer employs many different techniques during filming to set the mood of a given scene. During the opening sequence, for example, the film is overexposed a bit to give a sense of a documentary-like feel to the scenes. The camera work is often hand held and jerky too, heightening the sense of realism during the scene. But the disc handles all this easily and is a testament to the work being done by the folks over at DreamWorks. They definitely got the image on this disc right.
The disc is loaded with extras too. It includes an introduction by Spielberg himself, where he asks for donations to the D-Day Memorial Museum down in New Orleans. There are production notes and FULL cast and crew bios. I love DreamWorks for this. They give us a full taste of the work being done by these folks, not just a sampling. And they give us MANY more bios than most other studios would bother with, including composer John Williams and military consultant Dale Dye. Thank you DreamWorks, for the attention to detail. The disc also includes both the original theatrical and theatrical re-release trailers, both in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Also, the disc includes a 30-minute documentary called "Into The Breach" which looks at the making of the film. It includes interviews with Spielberg, Hanks, Damon, and the rest of the cast. It also includes testimonials from WWII and D-Day veterans who discuss the impact the war and battle had on their lives. Dale Dye also talks in depth about the rigors of the now famous five-day basic training the actors were put through in preparation for their roles. Also, historian Stephen Ambrose talks about the war and translating it to film and the challenges that go with such an undertaking.
Lastly, a word about the menus. DreamWorks, thankfully, have chosen a low-key approach t the menu system here. With a simple to navigate interface and animated scene screens, the menu is as complex as it needs to be, but the menus are a bit understated, treating the film with some element of dignity and respect. I can see a lesser studio with the menu displaying lopped off body parts and big bangs and explosions. Not with Dreamworks. With this disc, we get some bombs echoing in a far off place and small pictures of each actor fading into and out of focus atop a darkly lit hill. Very tastefully done, and I am thankful for it.
There is little to complain about from the movie itself. My only complaint is a semi-poorly placed disc layer change, but it is certainly not a major problem.
Saving Private Ryan is clearly a new benchmark for WWII movies. While I liked the film, I probably liked it a lot less than many of you did. That said, it is CLEARLY the greatest depiction of war ever to grace a film screen. And it has some terrific moments besides. The best part about the disc is that people who genuinely care about DVD and movies have assembled it. Of all the studios doing work in the DVD realm, DreamWorks impresses me the most. I just wish they had a bigger catalog of titles to work with. I am excited to see their 2000 lineup, as there are some very promising titles in the works.
The movie is acquitted. DreamWorks is acquitted and excused from being called to this court again. The disc is acquitted for the time being with the caveat that if it starts to act up again, it may get put in the slammer.
Review content copyright © 1999 Sean McGinnis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 169 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Exclusive Message from Steven Spielberg
* Saving Private Ryan - "Into The Breach"
* Two Theatrical Trailers
* Production Notes
* Cast and Filmmaker's Bios
* The American Experience: Guts and Glory
* National D-Day Museum