Paramount // 1998 // 162 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // May 12th, 2010
"Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess." -- Sgt. Horvath
In 1998, the war genre had all but vanished; the jingoistic action parables of post-war Hollywood having died about the same time Star Wars and Jaws hit theatres and gave birth to the blockbuster. Then came Steven Spielberg's WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan. It's a touch ironic that one of the fathers of the summer blockbuster would wind up crafting a film that would revitalize the dead war genre. Now available on Blu-Ray, Paramount has given us another way to-revisit the harrowing beaches and battlegrounds of France during World War II, and it is definitely a trip worth taking.
Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks, Philadelphia), fresh from surviving the D-Day invasion of Normandy, is tasked with the unthinkable; he must lead seven men into the heart of the European war in search of one. A private in the 101st Airborne has lost three brothers in the conflict, and he's earned a ticket home to appease his grieving mother. It's up to Miller and his men to find him amongst the thousands of airborne troops scattered all over North-western France.
Steven Spielberg had his brushes with mature filmmaking in the '80s. Movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun were ever so slightly outside of his comfort zone, and ultimately considered by many to be lesser works in his canon. With Schindler's List, Spielberg finally hit on that magical combination of accessibility and artistic vision that makes a classic. It amazed audiences and it's double Best Picture and Best Director Oscar wins gratified Spielberg's existence in the upper echelon of Hollywood filmmakers, as if commercial success weren't enough. If Schindler's List was the maturing of everyone's favorite filmmaking "boy of summer," then Saving Private Ryan was his first film as a full blown adult.
Much of the spectacle of Saving Private Ryan comes in the first half hour of screentime, indeed, if anything at all stands out about the film above all else it's the bewildering D-Day landing at Normandy. Captain Miller and his company of Rangers storm Omaha Beach, fighting for every square inch of land as German machine guns and mortars turn friends and comrades into gore stained husks. Shouts and gunfire boom on the soundtrack, and the visuals, replete with shaky cams and overcranked combat footage, show us a scene every war film (and indeed several video games) since has tried and failed to capture. I have yet to see a film master the balance between order and chaos in quite the same fashion. Spielberg knows exactly where to put his cameras, keeping his actors in frame and in focus in spite of all of the chaotic shakes and swipes. Lesser films lose their viewers amidst the rapid cuts and shuddering action, while Saving Private Ryan manages to stay comprehensible, yet it still manages to instil the sense of sheer panic during the frantic assault. No imitation has come close and even today this sequence remains as a dizzying example of the raw skill of Spielberg as a director. The fact that the re-enactment was more or less off the cuff with no storyboarding or pre-visualization, filmed over 18 days, and with thousands of extras, makes the scene that much more incredible. There are those who would tell you that the Normandy sequence overshadows everything else in the film, and yes, it certainly does cast a long shadow, but the human drama that follows is the very best that a film of the genre could offer, and several fantastic action scenes augment the drama, including another 20-plus minute stunner in the final act.
When the action slows, Saving Private Ryan is an engaging and emotionally heartfelt journey through one of the best portrayals of life as a grunt during "The Great War." The writing never gets bogged down in simple messages or pandering, it is a film about experiences. Tom Hanks' Captain Miller is an enigmatic man, honoured soldier and respected Commander, and while his motley crew of Rangers may initially strike you as your typical Army grunts, there's an added dimension to the team, both in the writing by Robert Rodat (The Patriot) and the performances of the great cast. The dialogue feels witty and authentic, and the actors don't so much act out as inhabit their characters. The faces are all pretty recognizable, giving us some great early work from Vin Diesel (Pitch Black), and Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar), and fantastic work from stalwarts like Tom Sizemore (Black Hawk Down) and Edward Burns (She's the One). Barry Pepper (Battlefield Earth), Adam Goldberg (Dazed and Confused), and Jeremy Davies (Lost) round out the squad; all turning in some amazing, and in some cases, career best performances. Familiar faces pop up all over the movie, with cameos from the likes of Paul Giamatti (Sideways), Dennis Farina (Snatch), Ted Danson (Cheers), and a hilarious appearance from Nathan Fillion (Firefly). I would be remiss if I didn't mention Matt Damon's (Good Will Hunting) turn as the titular Private Ryan, which makes as much of an impression as the rest of the bunch despite coming in pretty late in the game.
Every war film that has come since (save maybe Terrance Malik's The Thin Red Line) owes something to Saving Private Ryan. From the sombre horns and snare drums of John William's fantastic score, to Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's desaturated, grainy, jittering visuals, and of course the fantastic cast; it has come to redefine how we, as a culture, perceive the largest armed conflict in human history. It puts a fresh face on an old war, and indeed its cast provides a fresh perspective, devoid of Hollywood heroics and glamour, or the same old tricks to pull on heartstrings. At once it also manages to steer clear of the cynical quagmire that surrounded Vietnam-era war films like Platoon, which would seem anachronistic in the 1940's, when we as a collective people felt unified, empowered, and righteous.
As much as I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, and as significant a film as I feel Schindler's List was, Saving Private Ryan is truly a revelatory film. It is Spielberg's best offering, in a body of work that can only be described as exemplary, and it stands head and shoulders above any other film in the genre. It is not to be missed.
Paramount's Blu-ray treatment of Saving Private Ryan is almost as worthy of praise as the film itself. The 1080p VC-1 transfer is immaculate, perfectly capturing the unique look and feel of the film. The desaturated colors are perfectly represented, with strong contrasting hues (mostly reds) that pop off the screen. There's no discernable blurring or pixelization, especially when the camera gets shaky, and grain is present and natural without ever feeling too clean or too overpowering. The image is soft enough to prevent edging, but fine details like skin texture and dirt and grime shine through. This is a gorgeous looking movie that looks even more gorgeous on Blu-ray.
The sound shines as well, with a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix that is exemplary on every front. When the action hits, gunfire and chaos fill the soundstage front and rear. Quieter moments are well mixed, with some separation applied to the voices and no trace of audible distortion or hiss. The first thing everyone is likely going to do with this disc is to skip to June 6th, 1944 and give the audio a workout. You will definitely not be disappointed.
Spielberg eschews a director's commentary, as usual, but included on a second disc is a wealth of featurettes ported over from both the original DVD release (Into the Breach: The Making of Saving Private Ryan) and the double dipped 2-disc edition released on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. We're given somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 extra minutes, which covers everything from the casting to the recreation of the D-Day landing. It isn't quite the all-encompassing trip I'd like to have, and at times it feels a little promotional, but it's a good watch which goes a long way towards compensating for the absence of a commentary. Also included is another full-length documentary in the form of Shooting War, originally released on DVD in a WWII themed boxed set alongside 'Ryan' and another doc. Co-hosted by Tom Hanks and his awesome Cast Away beard, this fascinating look at combat photographers is loaded with actual combat footage and interviews with the guys who held the cameras. All of the extras, save for the films trailers, are presented in standard definition full-screen, which is a bit of a drag, but unsurprising considering their source.
I just can't recommend this disc enough. The film is a fantastic effort, the technical presentation is one of the best I've seen on the format, and upgraders need not fear missing features or a lacklustre upgrade. Steven Spielberg's best film is one that's not to be missed on Blu-ray.
Saving Private Ryan is acquitted on all counts. The film is a classic, and the disc is a stellar effort.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 162 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R