Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Rating: Rated R – For Intense, Prolonged Realistically Graphic Sequences of War Violence and for Language.
Film Length: 169 Minutes
Video: Color / 1080P High Definition 16X9 - 1.85:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese
“O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not my enemies triumph over me.”
The Film: 4.5 out of 5
The day that I saw Saving Private Ryan in the theater was sunny and quiet. The film had been playing for several weeks already, and the afternoon matinee showing was attended by perhaps nine or ten old men sitting dotted around the theater, and me. It appeared that each of us had come alone. Within the first four minutes, which offer but a single word of dialogue, I could hear several of the men in that theater with me quelling their tears – and after the devastating, and frighteningly visceral depiction of the D-Day landing on Omaha beach, the theater was silenced; and silent the theater remained until the last credit had rolled. For several moments after the theater lights came on, each of us sat in that theater; the others were perhaps as exhausted and stunned as I was. Leaving the theater was a solemn affair; and as precious few films can do, I was changed.
Films of war come in many stripes and have brought tales of heroism, intrigue and thrill in many forms. The greats such as Patton, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Bridge Too Far, and All Quiet on the Western Front, each achieved magnificence in telling such tales. Saving Private Ryan belongs beside these films as one of the greatest accomplishments in War films.
The Invasion of the Normandy beaches in France – codenamed Operation Overlord that began with the bloody D-Day - marked the launch of the most ambitious counter-offensive of World War II. Allied forces began the offensive with the deployment of parachute and glider forces, and bombing runs, followed by the high-casualty assaults on five beaches (Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah, and Sword). Within five days of D-Day, over 300,000 troops had landed, and within a month, over 1 million. But the loss of life was staggering.
Within minutes of Saving Private Ryan’s opening, we are amidst the gore of the D-Day landings, following the American Captain John Miller and what is left of his men. The scene is exhausting, astonishing, and the one of the most realistic depictions of war that has ever been committed to film. The eviscerating power of bullets; the horror of limbs exploded from men’s torsos; the disorientation of chaos and fear rendering some to freeze behind iron hedgehogs (a German defensive measure to obstruct tanks and other vehicular armaments), are shown here. The Germans meanwhile, in the ‘Widerstandsnester’ strongholds (resistance nest) lay down defensive machine gun fire. This scene is among the most compelling, technically outstanding, emotionally wrenching, and sincerely terrifying of the film.
After the landings, as the bold and brave push of allied forces in to France continues (in an attempt to liberate a Europe clenched under the occupation of Hitler’s army), Captain John Miller and seven select men are reassigned to locate a Private Ryan deep within the chaotic French war zone and bring him to safety. Private Ryan’s three brothers have recently been killed in combat, and Ryan is the last remaining child of the Ryan household. The Army brass, contemplating the familial ruin such news will wrought, issue orders for the last remaining Ryan boy to be pulled from war and returned home. The impetus of this unusual order is explained from the reading of a letter written by Abraham Lincoln, read by General George C. Marshall to his doubting officers:
I have here a very old letter, written to a Mrs. Bixby in Boston. "Dear Madam: I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln."
Captain Miller and his men resent and debate their mission, and the wisdom of seemingly risking the many for the one. But slowly, as they progress through France and encounter enemy forces among the wreckage of bombed towns, and across the lush summer green of Europe, they contemplate their charge ever more deeply. Whether by virtue of mission or accord, the dangerous quest to find Ryan becomes the swell of their pursuit, and though they lose men in this operation, when they eventually find Ryan, and his unwillingness to leave the men that he had fought beside, a strange sense of unity and alignment is found. Before Ryan will abide, the remaining men in Captain Miller’s compliment, and those whom Ryan will not leave undermanned and under-gunned, must secure and defend a strategically vital bridge from an advancing German tank division.
Steven Spielberg’s direction is almost flawless. With Robert Rodat’s emotive, brawny, and brooding screenplay, he wields his mighty filmmaker experience in the emotional and personal story of war following eight men on a mission to save one. The brutality of war is laid bare; bloody, brutal; the desperation of men’s souls in the darkness of war is unflinchingly told, and mesmerizing until the final frame. Spielberg has been said to have brought too much sentimentality to this film; something he avoided with Schindler’s List. That comment may be fair, but I also believe that this approach provides the right tone and temperament to the characters and how we understand and relate to them. Spielberg may be willing to allow the softness of heart to be present more often than some may have preferred, but it is the counter-balance to many haunting scenes. One such scene (spoiler alert for this next sentence) is during the climactic battle, as Pvt. Stanley Mellish, played by Adam Goldberg, engages in hand to hand combat with a German soldier. Mellish draws a blade to kill the German, but the blade is turned, and soon slowly begins to pierce Mellish’s heart. Mellish pleads, begs, for his enemy to stop. He does not; the German soldier callously stares into the frightened eyes of the Private and digs the knife in deeper, whispering something we cannot understand, until Mellish is dead. That is the brutality of war. That is the sadness of war. That is the horror of war. I wanted to never see that scene again.
Much like the close of Schindler’s list, Spielberg bookends this masterful film by displaying the life that has been born from the survivors – and in the very opening moments of Ryan, we see one survivor of that war as if we were his descendents (as so many of us have no idea what the brutality of war really imposes upon man and woman). We connect to this film from that outside perspective, then through the surviving soldier, and then into the thick of the D-Day invasion, as Spielberg descends us into the madness of war.
The cast is outstanding, with the character of Captain Miller, played superbly by Tom Hanks, remaining the relatable soul in an environment of monstrous danger and disarray. Though nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Cpt. Miller, Hanks would lose to Roberto Begnini (Life is Beautiful). Alongside Hanks, each delivering superb performances, are Tom Sizemore as Sgt. Mike Horvath, Edward Burns as Pvt. Richard Reiben, Barry Pepper as accomplished sniper, Pvt. Daniel Jackson, Adam Goldberg as Pvt. Stanley Mellish, Vin Diesel as Pvt. Adrian Caparzo, Giovanni Ribisi as T-5 Medic Irwin Wade, Jeremy Davies as the inexperienced and often clumsy Cpl. Timothy P. Upham, Matt Damon as the titular Pvt. James Francis Ryan. There are many other notable actors appearing throughout in small roles, including Ted Danson as Capt. Fred Hamill, Paul Giamatti, as Sgt. Hill, Dennis Farina as Lt. Col. Anderson, and Nathan Fillion as the ‘wrong’ Private Ryan.
Finally, John William’s Oscar nominated score is of remarkable accomplishment; a brass rich score of solemnity and heroism, that brought us ‘Hymn To The Fallen’, which particularly in its reprise version can conjure such a lump in the throat. The loss at the Oscars in 1999 for Williams makes less and less sense, much as does the film’s loss of best picture to Shakespeare in Love. Williams’ score is absent during the D-Day invasion sequence, leaving the powerful, and Oscar winning, sound, sound effects, and sound effects editing to take us in to, and through, the carnage of the assault.
Saving Private Ryan’s grit and realism changed depictions of war on film. Without it, I wonder if we would have seen the devastating charge of Russian troops against the Germans in 2001’s Enemy at the Gates; or would have bore witness to HBO’s exemplary mini-series Band of Brothers (or its Pacific theater follow-up, The Pacific), or even Terrence Mailick’s more ethereal and contemplative Thin Red Line.
The Video: 5 out of 5
Spielberg frames Saving Private Ryan at 1.85:1, giving the entire film the intimacy and close-quarter feel that is right for the material. This Sapphire Series Blu-Ray release could not be more faithful to the way this film is meant to be seen. Slightly awash in muted tones, this blu-ray release is exemplary. The level of detail and clarity is incredible, and results from the original image capture, rather than by any artificial means. Those familiar with the film will recall several uses of close-ups, particularly of Hank’s character, as the camera moves closely into the eyes – the detail on the skin is almost unmatched. Just terrific. The beiges and green-browns of uniforms, against the lushness of the green European countryside, fields of grass, and aged oak trees, are perfect, and the film grain is intact. This is exactly how this film should look on blu-ray. Exactly!
The Sound: 5 out of 5
Prepare yourselves. This Sapphire Series release comes with an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that will simply use every facet of your home theater audio set-up. With thunderous explosions, clarity in the lower end (such as when the rumble of the tanks, coupled with the squeal of their tracks, approach the allied forces in the final battle), are fascinating. The D-Day sequence is a mesmerizing exploration of sound and sound effect editing capabilities – and each bullets that zips, explosion that erupts, earth-bound shower of sand following an explosion that falls, and crash of the ocean waves, is reproduced with such precision and clarity, that despite the reference quality of the recent release on Blu of Avatar, you’ll find yourself playing this scene to show off the power of your toys more than any other.
Hats off to Paramount for delivering such an important film unscathed by tinkering, and properly checked for quality. Well done!
The Extras: 4.5 out of 5
All special features are standard definition 4X3, unless otherwise indicated.
An Introduction by Steven Spielberg (2:35): This probably could have been on disc one with the feature, but this special feature ported from the previous limited edition two-disc DVD release, provides some background to Spielberg’s decision to make Saving Private Ryan.
Looking into the Past (4:40): The influence of documentaries, newsreel footage, and Spielberg’s fascination by them, were the seeds sewn that would eventually inspire him to make Saving Private Ryan, as well as the real-life event of a young man ‘snatched’ from the war because his three brothers had been killed.
Miller and his Platoon (8:23): Some good behind the scenes footage and a look at the more mysterious, but everyman Captain Miller character.
Boot Camp (7:37): The preparation of the actors to look and act as the soldiers they were representing was as authentic as possible in part from the vigorous boot camp they took a part in.
Making Saving Private Ryan (22:05): Spielberg discusses the documentary style used for battle sequences, and more traditional filmmaking styles for almost all other sequences, as a continued effort to deglamourize war on film. This is a particularly revealing extra with much insight provided about technique and decisions from the director about his film. The look at creating the entire town seen in the final act of the film is of particular interest.
Re-Creating Omaha Beach (17:58): The use of the Irish army (Ireland is where Omaha beach was recreated), appeared to help the organization and execution of the mammoth sequence of the D-Day invasion.
Music and Sound (15:59): An interview with composer John Williams where he discusses creating the score, and how the film did not contain as much score as a typical collaboration of his with director Spielberg. He is revealing of his process, and the piece where he discusses, and we see, the recording of the powerful ‘Hymn to the Fallen’, is wonderful. Gary Rydstrom (sound editor) discusses the use of sound, researching for authenticity, and the immersive power of sound effects (and the sheer complexity of hand cutting each gunshot hit and other sounds). This feature is fascinating.
Parting Thoughts (3:43)
Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan (25:01): Ported over from the previous Special Limited Edition DVD release, this making of (which interestingly features music from James Horner’s score to Courage Under Fire), is more typical of making-ofs. The quality of the image (beyond scenes from the film) is not as good as the other special features provided, but does have some good commentary from the director and stars.
Shooting War (1:28:05): A bearded Tom Hanks hosts a documentary about those who covered World War II, and those making recreations of scenes of war (included John Ford). This contains absorbing images of the American response to Pearl Harbor (the raid covered in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor), and some extraordinary footage from aboard American aircraft carriers, including the Enterprise (which with the subject of the History Channels excellent series Battle 360°). Additionally, footage from the paratroopers and bombers running missions on the night before the D-Day invasion can be seen.
Theatrical Trailer (HD) (2:16)
Re-Release Trailer (HD) (2:05)
There’s no other way to say this; Saving Private Ryan breaks my heart. I am of the generation that knew nothing of the possibility of being drafted in to a war, not in the way that my grandfather’s generation did with World War II, or those of my father’s generation did with Vietnam. The gruesome reality of war was largely unapproachable – and its rattling depiction in this film frightened me, and insisted upon my reverence for those that fought and sacrificed in a way that no history course in school, or Saturday afternoon showing of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Battle of Britain, or The Longest Day ever could. Not because they were not remarkable films, but because their era would never have tolerated the sheer atrocity of war on display as it is on Spielberg’s outstanding film. To begin to consider for just one moment what I would have thought, seen, or done had I been in that war, humbles me. Spielberg’s film takes us inside the war, and inside the mind of those serving, in a way precious few films have ever even attempted. This film earns my Highest Recommendation.
Overall 4.5 out of 5