Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan begins with one of the most deservedly famous sequences in all of recent film, a vivid and graphic recreation of the D-Day battle at Omaha Beach. He approaches the scene hesitantly, nervously, as the American troops approach the beach; when their landing craft opens up, the front wave of soldiers are immediately dispatched in a wall of gunfire, and Spielberg, in that instant, explodes our war movie mythology. The battle lines are not clean, and "our boys" are losing, badly. This is war--it's messy, it's dirty, it's bloody, it's brutal. "War is hell" may not be the most original message, but it's rarely been so vividly illustrated.
In that first half-hour or so of Private Ryan, which features some of Spielberg's most potent and shocking imagery (you can't shake the way that bloody water drips out of Miller's helmet, or that dazed soldier, wandering around looking for his own arm), we're seeing something extraordinary: a good-time filmmaker who knows how to thrill us, casting off his little tricks and going for an effect of pure aesthetic power. There is no exposition (aside from a brief on-screen caption), no proper introductions, and the dialogue is all utility chatter, shouted over gunshots and explosions. For that first chunk of the film, this traditional, classicist director is flirting with a very experimental notion--the kind of "action as characterization" storytelling that The Hurt Locker went almost all the way with last summer. In that way, and in the sheer visceral punch of the sequence (and the one that mirrors it at the picture's end) is thrilling--just not in the way we had come to expect from the creator of the Indiana Jones movies.
In the Omaha Beach sequence, Spielberg never steps wrong; it's a shame how quickly he loses his footing when it's over. Some of the expositional shorthand towards the end of it (like the tidy little cans of dirt in the bag of Tom Sizemore's Sgt. Horvath, each neatly labeled with their country of origin) is a little too easy, but we're disappointed to discover that Robert Rodat's script isn't taking the risks we thought it was with that long opening sequence--he's merely reshuffling, postponing until after the battle the kind of sluggish exposition and historical pageantry we were so thankful that the picture was skipping. In a snap, we've gone from flesh and blood soldiers to speechifying wax figures, none more dull and lifeless than Harve Presnell's General George C. Marshall, who recites (from memory!) the words of Abraham Lincoln. Yes, we need to introduce the proper plot--that of the three Ryan brothers, all killed in combat within the same week, and the directive from on high to track down the only remaining brother, Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), and send him home--but there's got to be a more energetic and congruent way to do it than this.
Once Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and his unit get going on their mission, however, the film regains its steam. Yes, the characters are types (the Brooklyn wiseguy, the tough Jewish kid, the Southern sniper), but as such, we can identify and engage with them quickly--and, a dozen years on, it's actually easier to follow the characters now that the men who play them have all met with some degree of success. The eye for strong young actors here is really remarkable; not only do we have Damon, but Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, and Edward Burns fill out the unit, while Paul Giamatti and Nathan Fillion pop up in smaller roles along the way. It is a little jarring when more recognizable older actors like Dennis Farina and Ted Danson appear, but both actors turn in dialed-down, natural performances; as with Hanks, we are reminded that men of all ages and backgrounds were called upon to fight in WWII. With Hanks's Capt. Miller--whose back story is such a secret, the men in his unit have a pool going for who can guess it correctly--his "everyday guy" manner and appeal meshes perfectly with the reluctant soldier, who confesses, in the moment of his greatest candor, "Each man I kill, the further away from home I feel." That's elegant writing, and Hanks's unsentimental playing of it is absolutely right. So is the low-key acting of Hanks and Sizemore in the scene they share at a rubbled-out church (both are simple and unaffected), though Sizemore oversells the speech towards the end where he spells out the title. The other men each get at least a moment to shine as well--Damon (so young, so genuine) telling a funny story about his brothers, Goldberg taunting the German POWs, Pepper explaining his particular take on faith. (Only one of their scenes is fumbled: the bit with them coldly divvying up and joking about the dog tags is effective, but Spielberg strangles it by holding so long on the hurt faces of passing men that he belabors the point.)
When the unit finally tracks down Ryan, he refuses to go with them--his own ragtag unit needs him to stay and defend a bridge from an approaching German reconnaissance crew. The table is set for another difficult battle sequence, but we detour first for the quiet scenes of the men waiting for the Germans to arrive, a calm before the storm. Are these scenes (with the voice of Edith Piaf warbling from a handily abandoned Victrola) too conveniently evocative? Perhaps. But they doesn't render them any less poignant (particularly when Miller tells Ryan, of a memory of his wife, "That one I keep for me"). The subsequent battle may not be quite as torturous as its first-act counterpart, but it is more emotional--we've grown to know these men, and to care what happens to them in terms of their humanity, and not just as human beings. As such, the way that he stops the sequence for that terrifying moment when Upham may or may not have come behind the stairway wall is just excruciating, and when Goldberg's Mellish is in that torturous battle for his life, we're holding our breath.
Saving Private Ryan isn't a perfect picture--the symmetry of the so-called "Steamboat Willie" character is too obviously constructed, and I'm still not certain if those bookend framing sequences with the old man in the cemetery work, or are even necessary (though I'm pretty sure those last couple of shots were inevitable even when the film was released). But the picture's emotional force is intense and relentless enough to overpower its missteps in our memory. At its best, it remains one of Spielberg's greatest accomplishments.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The cinematography award to Janusz Kaminski was perhaps the most deserved of Saving Private Ryan's five Oscars; his photography is distinctive, appropriate, and remarkable, and it is meticulously presented here thanks to a first-rate MPEG-4 AVC transfer. After the bright green grass and sunny skies of the cemetery opening, we plunge into the past, a grainy, desaturated world that owes much to the newsreel documentary footage of the time. Kaminski and Spielberg don't go all the way to black and white, but the 1.85 image (giving the film a more intimate scope than the expected epic 2.35:1) bleeds the bright colors down to the green-and-brown elements and overcasts the smoky skies. There's a jittery, you-are-there immediacy to Kaminski's rough handheld photography and the textured, gritty film stock, and his frequent play with shutter speed gives the explosions the crystal clarity and detail of slow-motion, but at terrifyingly real speed. The tight close-ups, though infrequent, are astonishingly detailed as well, from the droplets of rain on leaves to the moving shots of Jackson taking aim behind his sniper scope.
But Kaminski's no one-trick pony--he finds places to break out of the photographic scheme, be it a warmly candle-lit church scene (the depth and richness of the shadows are jaw-dropping) or that gorgeous, iconic shot of the men silhouetted against distant gunfire--you want to pause the image and put a frame around it. But those kind of razzle-dazzle moments aren't hard to create; what's more remarkable is to take images like those of the village rubble, which aren't pretty, and make them somehow gorgeous. It's a mind-blowing video presentation.
I still clearly remember getting my first surround sound system, back around 2001, and being told that the Omaha Beach sequence was the one to put in to try out (and show off) your set-up. The Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is no less demo quality--it's an amazing piece of audio work. That first scene is so immersive, we flinch and duck (it scared my cat out of the room)--from the breaking waves around the carrier to the incoming mortars to the zipping past of bullets, it's a layered, thickly-crafted audio track, with distant shots and center-channel machine gun fire making full and brilliant use of the entire soundstage. The outdoor sounds and the falling rain of the middle sections are also impressive, but the final battle scene sucks us right in, from the rumble of the tanks approaching and then passing on all sides to the non-stop barrage of whizzing bullets, jangling shell casings, jostling ricochets, and bass-heavy explosions. Active and scary, but properly modulated for dialogue scenes, this is a reference-quality audio mix.
French, Portuguese, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as are English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
UPDATE: Reports have filtered in that there are some minor audio sync issues the crop up briefly around the two-hour mark. I will confess that I noticed no such thing when I watched the film again for this review. I returned to the disc a week or so later and, yes, if you look very, very closely, there are a few shots where the dialogue appears to be a frame or two off. But (at least with my set-up), it's not a noticeable problem.
Paramount notes that the error occurred during Techincolor's authoring process, and tells consumers that "Technicolor has set up the following toll-free numbers for consumers who have already purchased the Saving Private Ryan Sapphire Series Blu-ray, which provides details on how they can receive a replacement copy -- US and Canada: 888-370-8621, UK: 08000-852-613. Consumers can also return the Blu-ray to the stores where they purchased the product to receive a replacement. Technicolor expects to have replacement discs available at retail no later than Tuesday, May 18."
UPDATE II: Paramount sent DVD Talk a replacement disc and, checking the problem area, I can see that the sync issue has been resolved.
Bonus features (all from previous releases) are no less remarkable, taking up an entire second 50GB Blu-ray disc. The first batch are all directly related to the feature itself, beginning with "An Introduction" (2:35) in which Spielberg discusses his history with war movies, beginning with the ones he made as a teen (including clips). "Looking into the Past" (4:40) is a bit more background, as Spielberg discusses his interest in WWII documentaries and why he was drawn to this story. "Miller and His Platoon" (8:23) features Spielberg and Hanks discussing how their collaboration on the film happened, and discussing the younger actors, many of whom are interviewed as well. "Boot Camp" (7:37) focuses on the famous "boot camp" that the actors attended as prep with technical advisor Captain Dale Dye; he is interviewed, as are the actors and Spielberg.
"Making Saving Private Ryan" (22:05) is a less specific and more all-encompassing featurette, showing Spielberg on set and explaining the production process, including the tight production schedule that put him from The Lost World to Amistad to Saving Private Ryan, back-to-back-to-back. From there, the featurette briefly touches on production design, stunts and effects, costume design, and (most intriguingly) cinematography. "Recreating Omaha Beach" (17:58) focuses on the picture's most famous sequence--both the historical background of the battle itself, and how it was put to film so masterfully. Next is "Music and Sound" (15:59), which examines the work of composer John Williams and sound designer Gary Rydstrom. "Parting Thoughts" (3:43) wraps up the group of featurettes. Next up is "Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan" (25:01), which becomes a bit of overkill--it's a conventional EPK-style featurette, with not much that we haven't heard elsewhere in the supplements.
The disc also includes the full-length documentary "Shooting War" (1:28:05), written, produced, and directed by esteemed critic Richard Schickel (who has created excellent docs on Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Clint Eastwood). Hosted by Tom Hanks (in his terrible Cast Away beard) and introduced by Stephen Ambrose, it is a cinematic history of World War II, beginning with John Ford's recreation of the Pearl Harbor attack and going all the way through the major skirmishes of the "Great War," with interviews by the cameramen (including softcore king Russ Meyer!) and plenty of the extraordinary footage they captured. It's a first-rate extra, particularly for war buffs.
The original Theatrical Trailer (2:16) and Re-Release Trailer (2:05) finish out the bonus features.
Saving Private Ryan has its negligible flaws, but serious Blu-ray aficionados shouldn't hesitate for a moment to pick Paramount's "Sapphire Series" HD release--the video and audio is simply peerless, and the bonus features, while not new, are none too shabby either. It's a great movie, and the presentation more than does it justice.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.