Saving Private Ryan

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Robert Rodat
Stars: Tom Hanks (Captain John Miller), Tom Sizemore (Sergeant Mike Horvath), Edward Burns (Private Reiben), Matt Damon (Private James Ryan), Jeremy Davies (Corporal Upham), Vin Diesel (Private Caparzo), Adam Goldberg (Private Mellish), Barry Pepper (Private Jackson), Giovanni Ribisi (Medic Wade)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1998
Country: U.S.
Saving Private Ryan 4K UHD
Saving Private Ryan

The sky is dreary and overcast, and the gray ocean waves are choppy as the Higgins boats advance steadily toward Omaha Beach. Inside each boat, rows of soldiers stand in formation, gripping their weapons, some nervously vomiting on the deck, other shaking with fear, others grimacing at the increasing volume of the explosions ahead of them. All of their faces are scrawled with terrified anticipation—not of greatness or glory in fighting for their country, but of death. When the boats arrive and the front gates drop open, we get the first wave of that death. In an instant of heavy machine gun fire, what was once a boat-full of soldiers is reduced to a pile of blood, bones, and gristle. Not one soldier manages to even take a step forward before they are brutally cut down. This doesn’t feel like war; it feels like senseless slaughter.

Such is the beginning of the excruciatingly intense, graphically depicted re-enactment of the storming of the beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944, that opens Steven Spielberg’s masterful war drama Saving Private Ryan. The sequence lasts for nearly half an hour, and it remains of the most brutal, devastating cinematic depictions of warfare ever created. No film had ever captured, with such a forceful mixture of bloody chaos and intense clarity, the subjective experience of combat. Spielberg’s camera does not simply record the violence as soldiers are blown apart by bullets and shrapnel, but rather thrusts us in the middle of it (the aforementioned depiction of the boatful of soldiers being obliterated by machine-gun fire, for example, is shot from inside the boat). Shaky and jittery, the film puts us in the shoes of a foot soldier clamoring up the blood-soaked beach. At some points in the action, we are made to feel like we are literally inside a firing machine gun. Working with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with whom he had first worked on Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg essentially redefined the look and feel of the combat film by desaturating the palette to resemble contemporaneous newsreel footage and employing techniques like narrowing the camera’s shutter opening to 45 degrees, which results in moving images that are more intermittent, yet visually sharper and more distinct. Some have compared the effect to that of stop-motion animation, where the film frames do not blur together and the eye detects a kind of jerkiness, which underscores the chaotic and highly charged nature of combat. Spielberg had depicted war combat before, notably in his much undervalued Empire of the Sun (1987) and in some parts of Schindler’s List, but he had never delivered such a sustained cinematic assault; it was a truly revolutionary moment and one that was seared into my memory when I first saw the film on opening day in 1998.

It is interesting that Spielberg would be the man to render the gruesome violence of war in such vivid strokes. Like Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone, both of whom started by making gory horror films and later made intense films about the violence of Vietnam, Spielberg started his career with stylized violence. From the man-eating shark in his generation-defining summer blockbuster Jaws (1975), to the pulp adventures of the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg demonstrated from the start that he was a master of choreographing action, suspense, and bloodshed. But, in Saving Private Ryan, he infused that violence with a deep sense of purpose, a reckoning to remind us that, behind the platitudes of glorious war, lie devastated, broken bodies and tormented minds. Despite being so highly stylized, the film’s violence is almost too real to bear.

The story concerns a squad of men, led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), that has been ordered on a morale-boosting public relations mission to go behind enemy lines in France and find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers have all been killed in action. Miller’s squad includes the dedicated Sergeant Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore); the outspoken Private Reiben (Edward Burns); Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies), a translator who has never shot a gun in battle; and Private Jackson (Barry Pepper), a sharpshooter with a Southern drawl and a penchant for quoting the Bible to steady his hand while taking aim. All the men react to the assignment in different ways, some resentful that eight men have to risk their lives for one man they don’t even know, and some more resigned to the fact that it is an order from General George Marshall (Harve Presnell), and in war one doesn’t question orders. As the film progresses, we get to know each man individually. As he did in the opening battle on Omaha Beach, Spielberg brings us inside the squad, so that when the men fall in battle, we feel an acute sense of loss. Screenwriter Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home) makes each man unique, but purposefully keeps them simple and direct, thus reminding us that wars are not fought by larger-than-life John Wayne archetypes, but rather by everyday people, many of them kids.

Spielberg uses the opening sequence to sear into our minds the violence of war in the largest sense, then he shows us the politicking and public relations in the offices of the top brass, and then hunkers down and filters the entire experience through a small group of ordinary men fighting for their lives amid the chaos. From whatever angle you look at it, the film’s message is staggeringly clear—war is hell—and Spielberg delivers it with blunt-force trauma (he won the Oscar that year for Best Director, his second, although the film lost out Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love, a controversial decision that still rankles many to this day). However, the film is not without its faults, most notably a framing device in which Ryan, as an elderly man, returns to the Normandy American Cemetery with his family. It is an awkward narrative device, and while it make sense on paper, it doesn’t quite work, partially because it is simply too obvious and too direct in its emotional appeal. Spielberg has weathered more than his share of criticism for being a sentimentalist who all too often goes for the big, easy emotions, and while many of those criticisms have been deliriously misguided, in this case they may be right. However, the rest of the film is so powerful, so intense, so uniquely compelling in its vision of human violence at its worst and human decency at its best, that it’s hard not to consider it a masterpiece of its kind, a war film that redefined the possibilities of a genre that had long been considered closed.

Saving Private Ryan Commemorative 20th Anniversary 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English Dolby Atmos
  • English Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • German Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Italian Dolby Digital 5.1surround
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, English SDH, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
    Supplements
  • “An Introduction” featurette
  • “Looking Into the Past” featurette
  • “Miller and His Platoon” featurette
  • “Boot Camp” featurette
  • “Making Saving Private Ryan” featurette
  • “Re-Crearting Omaha Beach” featurette
  • “Music and Sound” featurette
  • “Parting Thoughts” featurette
  • “Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan” featurette
  • Shooting War documentary
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Re-release trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    SRP$31.99
    Release DateMay 8, 2018

    COMMENTS
    The 4K Ultra HD presentation of Saving Private Ryan is a truly stunning experience, bringing out the film’s intense clarity, detail, and sense of finely tuned chaos. The image is powerfully rendered, with all the gritty detail and nuance of the desaturated cinematography looking stronger than ever. The Omaha Beach sequence, of course, is the stand-out, and the use of the 45-degree shutter to make elements of the image sharper and more distinct is all the more powerful here. The Dolby Atmos and Dolby TrueHD 7.1-channel surround mixes are likewise impressive, with a complete sense of aural envelopment. Every channel is thoroughly engaged to create a sonic atmosphere of chaotic warfare that simply has to be experienced. There are, unfortunately, no new supplements, although all the ported-over extras from previous editions are very good. There is a two-and-a-half-minute introduction by director Steven Spielberg, followed by a host of featurettes that explore different facets of the film’s production. “Looking Into the Past” (5 min.) features an interview with Spielberg in which he talks about the research that went into the film and its real-life basis; “Miller and His Platoon” (8 min.) looks at Spielberg’s collaboration with Tom Hanks and the other actors; “Boot Camp” (8 min.) focuses on veteran military advisor Dale Dye and how he worked with the actors; “Making Saving Private Ryan” (22 min.) is a general overview of the film’s production; “Re-Creating Omaha Beach” (18 min) explores everything that went into creating the film’s realistic opening battle sequence; “Music and Sound” (16 min.) features interviews with composer John Williams and sound Designer Gary Rydstrom; “Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan” (25 min.) is another general overview of the film’s production and themes; and “Parting Thoughts” (4 min.) has Spielberg and Hanks discussing their final take on the film. Shooting War (2000) is an absolutely fascinating 88-minute documentary hosted by Tom Hanks (in full Castaway beard) about the combat photographers who documented World War II. It features interviews with historian Stephen Ambrose and more than a dozen veteran combat photographers who filmed the war along with tons of their footage, some of which had not previously been seen. Also on the disc is the original theatrical trailer and a re-release trailer.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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