I don't think anyone is going to complain too much if I don't give an overly in-depth movie review of Saving Private Ryan. The blockbuster motion picture, which landed director Steven Spielberg has second Academy Award for Best Director, opened in July of 1998 and almost immediately captured the public's attention with its grisly, realistic presentation of the horrors of wartime. Gone was the sanitized vision of battle we had seen countless times before in film after film. The opening half-hour of Saving Private Ryan told us exactly the type of film for which we were in store. Bullets ripping through flesh, blood flowing in currents, limbs blown off, lives snuffed out in split seconds, and wave after wave of young men mowed down and butchered up as the events of June 6, 1944 took place.
It's one of the most gripping cinematic segments ever filmed: unbearable to watch, yet impossible to turn away from. Furthermore, it raises the bar for everything in the film that succeeds it, and for many it earmarks the biggest flaw in Saving Private Ryan. The tale that it develops simply cannot compete with the spectacle and horror of its opening salvo. The storming of the fortified beaches of Normandy is an entropic nightmare, a vision of chaos and carnage in which Allied infantry managed to not only maintain their sanity with the very real possibility of being killed at a moment's notice, but also successfully break through enemy lines and punch a major hole into Nazi-occupied France. The scene is as mammoth as it is legendary, and in terms of sheer emotional potency and cinematic prowess nothing else in Saving Private Ryan can touch it.
That of course doesn't mean that everything that follows after the 28-minute mark is exactly crap, does it? The story of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks, in a beautifully mannered and subdued performance) and his squad's trek behind enemy lines in order to locate Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) is a heart-wrenching and compelling tale that succeeds more as a result of its larger moments than its smaller ones. Each member of Miller's squad has been accused of being little more than caricatures and ethnic stereotypes: the tough-as-nails Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore), the cynical and smart-mouthed Irish Private Reiben (Edward Burns), the scared and green-gilled Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), the tough-talking but soft-hearted Italian Private Caparzo (Vin Diesel), the brash and sarcastic Jewish Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), the sensitive medic Private Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), and the Bible verse-spoutin', Southern Private Jackson (Barry Pepper). I find that Captain Miller and, to some degree, Corporal Upham register most strongly as clearly defined and nuanced characters. The other characters are given very little in terms of depth, but the actors portraying them do an excellent job in endearing themselves to the viewer. I disagree with the assessment that they are caricatures rather than characters; if the film took the time to develop each soldier into fully fleshed-out three-dimensional characters, we'd end up with Band of Brothers , and at slightly under three hours the filmmakers just didn't have the time for that.
When I first came out of the theater after a screening of Saving Private Ryan, I was convinced that Spielberg had made an absolute masterpiece. After watching the film on DVD nearly a year later, my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered but I still felt that it was a great movie. Today, after seeing the film again for the first time in years, I feel that Saving Private Ryan is, if not an absolute masterpiece, an extremely powerful and moving work that stands as one of the greatest war films of this or any era.
Saving Private Ryan is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing enjoyment. Running an A-B comparison indicates to me that this is the same, earlier transfer as the 1999 DVD release. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. There are intentional aesthetic flourishes that give the entire transfer a grainy, overly-contrasted look, and that delivery is beautifully rendered on this DVD. The movie often appears almost bleached-out and colorless, with deep, rich blacks and a sharp, well-defined image. There's a smudge of pixellation noise and some extremely minimal but noticeable edge-enhancement, but overall this is a beautiful looking transfer.
The audio is presented in both French and English Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. Sadly , the highly-acclaimed DTS soundtrack from 1999 is not included on this disc. One wonders why, given the highly-touted nature of this reissue, that one of the most celebrated DVD soundtracks ever would not be included on this disc. Nonetheless, the Dolby Digital mix does not disappoint. While not on the level of the DTS mix, the 5.1 experience here is simply outstanding (and is also apparently the same soundtrack from the previous release.) The viewer is plunged into the heart of battle from the get-go, with an aggressive, bombastic soundstage that earns its stripes from frame one. There is serious expansion and depth to the field, with magnificent image placement, directionality, and discrete effects throughout. Surrounds are used often and most efficaciously to generate a broad dispersion of the audio, with booming LFE adding serious punch to the mix's low end. Dialog levels seem warm, bright, and balanced, without clipping, hiss, or distortion. As we've known for nearly five years, this is an amazing soundtrack.
Saving Private Ryan comes with a host of Special Features, all contained on Disc Two. First up is An Introduction to the Film (2:35), in which director Steven Spielberg explains his earliest filmmaking experiences, which were primarily comprised of World War II action films. His obsession with the Second World War, as well as his father's service in the War as an Airman, motivated him to explore this period and genre as a professional filmmaker. I suppose we can forget 1941... most people have. Next up is Looking Into the Past (4:41), in which Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat discuss the extensive research that went into the creation of Saving Private Ryan, including the real-life stories of the Niland and Sullivan brothers from which the story of the film heavily draws.
Miller and His Platoon (8:25) explores the relationship between Spielberg and Hanks, and how their independent love of the material led to the development of Saving Private Ryan. Both Hanks and Spielberg talk about each other (in rather congratulatory terms) and discuss their mutual love and interest in the stories revolving around World War II. It also features interview footage with other cast members that made up Miller's platoon, including Ed Burns, Jeremy Davies, Matt Damon, and Vin Diesel.
Boot Camp (7:38) looks into how elements of realism were introduced into the film, courtesy of the always-charismatic Ret. Captain Dale Dye (who also had a role in the film as a War Department officer). Dye set up a boot camp for all of the main actors in the film, in order to generate realistic sense of camaraderie and war-torn wariness amongst the stars. All of the actors (including Hanks) took part in this boot camp (save for Matt Damon; no diva antics here, he was kept apart in order to generate actual resentment that translated well when the squad finally met Private Ryan in the movie.)
Making Saving Private Ryan (22:05) is the most substantial of all the featurettes included in this DVD. Spielberg starts off the discussion with commentary about he didn't want to create just another "War Is Hell" film, and the featurette continues with a look at the creation of the film, from location scouting to on-set direction to costuming. Re-creating Omaha Beach (17:59) examines the film's opening segment in detail, in which the filmmakers went out to recreate with gritty realism the invasion of Normandy via the massive assault landing at Omaha Beach. Historians, production designers, producers, and other cast/crew members were interviewed for this segment, which is easily the most interesting of all those included in this DVD.
Music and Sound (16:00) heavily features legendary composer John Williams, in which he discusses how the subject matter of the film influenced the creation of the film's score, as well as how the numerous sound effects were researched and created for the film. How does an empty cartridge sound when it pops out of an M1 rifle? The sound effects crew had to find this out, as well as dozens of other details. Finally, Parting Thoughts (3:44) wraps everything up nicely with some final reflections on the project.
Saving Private Ryan: D-Day 60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition presents something of a dilemma to owners of the earlier release. If you have the DTS disc, hang on to it: that soundtrack is not included here. Also, the Into The Beach Special on the DD disc is also not included on this disc. The transfer on this DVD is the same as the one included on both previous editions. However, the 80-minutes of supplemental material make this DVD a must-have for fans who yearn to discover more in-depth, behind-the-scenes information about the movie. As it stands, I am going to give this film a Highly Recommended rating, especially for those who do not have the earlier editions of the film. It's a great DVD set, but without that incredible DTS track there is definitely something missing.
(Please note: The acclaimed DTS track is included on the SPR disc in the World War II Collection DVD set, which also includes the documentaries Price For Peace and Shooting War. It's $50 retail, but you get two extra DVDs filled with documentaries and that awesome DTS soundtrack...)