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Saving Private Ryan (Blu-ray)
Paramount / 1998 / 170 Minutes / Rated R
Street Date: May 04, 2010
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Thursday, May 13, 2010
In 1993, Steven Spielberg created what may well be one of the, if not the, greatest English language film ever created, with the disturbing yet stunning 'Schindler's List.' It was a personal story, to be sure, coming from the founder of the Shoah Foundation, which documents the stories of those who survived or witnessed the Holocaust. The film deserved every heap of praise it received, and showed why Mr. Spielberg is in a class all his own among living directors, and in the upper echelon of the great helmers of all time.
Just five years later, after a return trip to 'Jurassic Park,' and a sidestep into slavery with 'Amistad,' Spielberg returned to the setting of the second World War with yet another great film, this time, though, with a story that didn't focus on the plight of the Jews. Rather, he changed the way war was depicted in film, with graphic realism that could make even the most macho of men squirm, in the midst of a story of great bravery, sacrifice, and brotherhood (a theme that he would later explore in more depth with a certain HBO series).
With 'Saving Private Ryan,' Steven Spielberg made the picture that every war film since has aspired to equal or best, and a film that belongs in any serious collection, a masterpiece of storytelling that captures the human spirit in the worst of times.
When it is discovered that one mother will be receiving three American flags and telegrams telling her of the death of her children, a mission is tasked to Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks). He is to find James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), the youngest of the set of four siblings enlisted. With a group of seven other men (including six Rangers from his company (Tom Sizemore as Technical Sergeant Michael Horvath, Edward Burns as Private First Class Richard Reiben, Barry Pepper as Private Daniel Jackson, Adam Goldberg as Private Stanley Mellish, Vin Diesel as Private First Class Adrian Caparzo, and Giovani Ribisi as Technician Fourth Grade Irwin Wade) and interpreter Timothy Upham, played by Jeremy Davies), Miller will venture into Nazi occupied France in search of the missing Ryan, a parachuter from the 101st Airborne, risking the lives of his entire troupe, on orders that defy logic. Miller has a history of heading up dangerous and otherwise unwanted missions, but this may be the most difficult of them all.
'Saving Private Ryan' is not a perfect film. It actually has a few crucial issues that, upon repeat viewings, I have found impossible to ignore. That said, it's a great film. That isn't me stating my personal opinion on the matter, but stating fact. Few war films have ever reached the lofty heights that 'Saving Private Ryan' consistently hovers around; hell, few films period, regardless of genre, have provided such an experience.
This isn't just some guy film, with tons of gunfire, explosions, killing and bravado hiding true feelings of fear and irrelevance. Well, all of that is present and accounted for, but themes of love and loss, brotherhood (not just through genetics), responsibility, courage, selflessness, sacrifice and true heroism are just a handful of the primary elements of the film.
One could easily break the story down by the characters, and their changes throughout. Obviously Miller, the pseudo-main character of the film, is the drive of the film, and his character is lush with reality. He's not a leader of men. He's a leader of children. That said, with guns a-blazin' from high above, with no maneuverability to be found to dodge or escape fire, a scenario we encounter from the onset of the film, sometimes men turn into boys, cowering, fearing the death that is taking their comrades with little restraint, surrounding them, as bodies pile up, and beaches run a deep, disgusting crimson. Miller can't hold his men in line, as he has no experience dealing with people who he hasn't helped mold, to conform into society, as Caparzo shows at every turn. One can argue he wants to go home to his normal, mundane life, but his insistence on maintaining a sense of mystery around the men he leads, and his separation from humanity in dealing with loss (with over ninety men lost under his command, he seems numb to the situation at times), he seems to have found a new home, and a new respect that he never had before.
Private James Francis Ryan? Well, imagine living up to that billing. A small troupe of men sent through dangerous, uncleared parts of France, risking life and limb, solely to find you, and whisk you away to safety. As the eight searchers for a needle in a stack of hay grow more despondent to their task, his inevitable appearance doesn't much alleviate their plight, instead compounding it through his steadfast determination to be family to his only remaining brothers, his fellow soldiers.
Reiben, Jackson, and Mellish all have similar situations, with fear replacing courage, downtrodden, defeated in spirit, as they journey further away from safety, with situations growing more dire daily. Mellish stands as the only developed Jewish character in the film, and Spielberg makes sure to show how the culture fought back against the Nazis, even if on an individual basis, through his attitude in showing off his Star of David to Nazi P.O.W.'s, to his methods of fighting. Jackson, the Christian element of the group, and sharpshooter extraordinaire, has a bravado that quickly is shredded to pieces as he encounters real loss. From being lost in a sea of men in the D-Day landing, to having to be a leader of sorts with his specialties, his arc remains one of the more intriguing aspects of the film. Reiben represents a more civilian attitude, if any character could have that said about them, as he is open and willing to disobey direct orders at times, yet backs down and falls back into line when pressured and/or relaxed. Wade, the medic, easily shines as the human element, as he's not there to kill, but to save lives. He reminds his cohorts of their humanity, as they slip sharply out of line. He's respected, despite being so very quiet throughout, and is nearly the most invaluable member of the team, aside from the outcast, Davies, who seems to resent his predicament, from the moment he's chosen onwards. His cowardice in the face of danger shows the way young men who were not mentally capable of handling such situations were forced to adapt or die.
Spielberg does an amazing job in keeping the film interesting, juggling characters and their arcs so that each individual gets their payoff, be it immediate, or in the long run. Scenes are beautifully framed, with a few silhouetted lineups being illuminated by mortar fire reminding one of similar scenes in the great war films like 'Full Metal Jacket.' We are allowed to grow attached to damn near every character, and as hours flash by, they seem like only minutes have passed. We get so many moods from the spectacle that, under a less determined and skillful eye, it would have been nearly impossible to keep up with.
And while 'Saving Private Ryan' may be an utter epic, a film worthy of induction into any special film series (like the AFI), it has its flaws. 'Schindler's List 2,' this is not. From the very onset, for viewers who have seen the film, there are moments that just don't seem to make sense. We see the elderly, unnamed man in the cemetery, falling to his knees at a particular grave, and flash back to the moment American troops begin landing at Normandy. The thing is, the man we saw was never there, his brother was. We get nice little continuity situations (where Ryan admits he cannot see the faces of his brothers, and the corpse of his brother on the beach is face down), but it doesn't explain why what we can assume are memories are for other people, not his own experiences. And why do we never see Private Ryan in action, until the end, where he's more sheltered than any man at war should be? We constantly hear stories of what happened to the 101st, yet never see their plight. Perhaps the thought was to have the troupe discovering him be a revelation, a "ha, he is alive" moment, but in the way we never see his action, it would have been more fitting if Miller and company found his corpse instead.
The film is crafted meticulously, to the point that it feels manufactured, not only to gain sympathy, but maintain interest in the event. We get the bookends in modern time, each one directly next to massive battles that have to be seen to be believed (including what may be the greatest single battle sequence ever filmed), with gains and losses taking turns for every moment between, sprinkled with miniature conflicts (while internal conflict is more dangerous than external, the enemy, at times) to keep up the illusion for the red meat eating audience members that this is a war film. There are no missteps, it just feels too calculated. The timing of the losses for Miller's crew are perfectly slated, with plenty of distance between, so that audiences may soon find themselves moving forward, only to face death again, rather than face it realistically. We hear so few words from characters in the battle that aren't going to end up major characters that it feels somewhat cartoonish, and as we progress, even Private Ryan's parachuting brethren are nothing more than nameless, faceless red shirts against the Nazis. The way lives are dismissed as unimportant in this manner is pretty sickening.
Still, 'Saving Private Ryan' is effective, regardless of the fact that it doesn't hide the fact that it is intentionally trying to induce a reaction. It is tough to not be emotionally vested in the D-Day siege, as we see men banding together, amidst mass confusion and peril, to break through and survive. But perhaps the best sequence in the entire film is shown immediately after, as we see, for the only time, the men and women back home in America, and how they're dealing with the war. We see the men who lead the war, from so far away, moving troops like a chess game. We see the mothers and families affected as they learn they have lost a loved one. And, in a related note, we see the team of women, whose job it is to type up each and every letter to the family of the deceased, as the score kicks back in, matching the somber demeanor in a way that to this day makes me tear up. Seeing the men dying isn't nearly as powerful as seeing the result of their sacrifice, step by step, from typing to delivery of a folded American flag and a heartfelt apology.
Few films have ever had the effect that 'Saving Private Ryan' has, both on its audience, and its film brethren, past, present, and future. It is a must see work in cinematic history, that some will praise as being "the best" at something or other. There's something for nearly everyone, as we get not only realistic to the point of being nauseating warfare, but real, fleshed out characters, who act human, in the midst of the most inhuman acts ever committed. Films like this may help us to never forget our past, put a face, even if fictional, on the men who served and died so many years ago. With amazing acting performances that are beyond praise (with nary a single actor standing out for the wrong reasons), 'Saving Private Ryan' is an entertaining and worthwhile piece of film history.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Saving Private Ryan' arrives on Blu-ray spread across two discs, with a BD50 disc housing the film, and a BD25 holding the supplement package. This is the fifth title in Paramount's Sapphire Series, a monicker only bestowed on films they're holding as the best of the best. Unfortunately, unlike other titles in this series, there is no rebate form inside for owners of previous editions. The slightly holographic slipcover found on other Sapphire titles is present and accounted for, and is the only packaging of note. I can confirm that this title works on Region B players without issue, but since other countries are receiving this title as well, importing it from the USA won't even be a relevant issue.
'Avatar' made a big splash on Blu-ray, particularly with the announcement that the film disc would have no extras, to maximize the space for the audio and video, to maximize, in turn, the quality of said presentation components. With little fanfare, it seems that 'Saving Private Ryan' took the same approach...only Paramount didn't skimp out on the supplements package, including a bonus disc for extras (see, Fox, it isn't that hard).
Like 'Avatar' before it, 'Saving Private Ryan' takes the ball and runs with it. The already twelve year old film (how time passes!) doesn't have a digital, unimpeded look to it; but it makes up for the lack of dragons and blue people by having actual story and developed characters, and a general feel of realism...grit, dirt. This isn't a polished, pristine, borderline photoshop created visual masterpiece. It's realistic, instead. Tough. It has been to war and back.
The 1.85:1 AVC MPEG-4 encode (at 1080p) is not perfect, and I would like to stress this. This is easily the best 'Saving Private Ryan' has ever looked, and is so damn good it eeked out a five star score, after much internal debate.
The film has a few varying aesthetics to it. Much like how the score disappears for battle scenes, at times the video changes to an exaggerated mirror image to the normal scenes in the film. Grain levels can go from strong and somewhat thick to nearly transparent. Contrast, which is pitch perfect in non-combat situations, is kicked up about twenty notches. Scenes can occasionally look like a colorized version of a black and white film due to such, while color bleed is exaggerated as well.
After the Normandy landing, realism kicks back in. Camera movements become less frantic, while grain, contrast, and colors all return to beautiful perfection and naturalism. Blacks remain accurate, no matter what visual appearance the film takes, while shadow detail is perfect, with never a single moment of crush, yet no overly bright blacks, either. Detail is amazingly strong, as well, with more popping materials than the most airborne of debris, and the varying fabric and materials on uniforms differentiating to the point you may as well be feeling them. Skin tones are natural, ranging, and outright sumptuous. Edges are gorgeous, while aliasing is never an issue. If DNR was employed at any point, it slipped right by me (if it were, the changes in aesthetics could mask it in numerous sequences), which means I'm either blind, or it would be very, very minor. I'm hoping for the latter of those two options. A few pans were jarring, made worse by the jumpy camera doubling the stuttering look, while some sequences left much to be desired in terms of clarity (the way that bugs are barely even visible on the bodies left to rot in front of the machine gunner field, for example) but a few in a nearly three hour film isn't enough to worry about. Sit back, don't bother looking for problems, and just enjoy the carnage in all its beauty.
'Saving Private Ryan' won five Academy Awards in 1998. This is relevant here, as one of said five awards was for its sound design. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix for the film makes it sound better than damn near any film ever made, so it's safe to say that justice has been served here, and there will be little to no room for any complaints about the audio from those who have put in the money for a good system.
We all know how this film opens. Normandy. Waves. Machine guns. Explosions. Screaming. Carnage. It doesn't take long for this disc to stand up and show why it has earned the prestigious five star mark. When you have waves crashing through the room from proper angles, with little bass kisses to boot, as landing crafts approach beaches, you're in for a treat. Machine gun whirs, constant water movement, and small details, like water rattling in a canteen, or dirt being kicked up from the slight movements, this is all top-notch. There's constant activity coming from, and moving to, each and every possible angle. Sand dislodged from explosions sprinkles across the room long after the impact. Best of all, bass isn't overpowering, even in explosions, in this opening scene.
We don't get a half hour of extreme awesome, then a return to a generic, front-heavy talky. No sir. 'Saving Private Ryan' can get as quiet as any war film wants to be (sometimes silence speaks more than aggression), and not once will you need to adjust your volume settings. When there isn't a battle going on, dialogue doesn't stray too far from the front channels, but there is always a little something going on to keep the room full and engaged. The lows found throughout are matched nicely with high ends, particularly the metal on metal "ting" heard from spent, ejected magazines. Dialogue is always clear (except when purposely not heard, in the middle of all the confusion), no matter the amount of atmospheric brouhaha. Movement is always accurate, localization is superb. Explosions? As beautiful sounding as the harbingers of death can be. The finale, the battle in the ruined city, is, believe it or not, the highlight of this release, at least audibly speaking, with the deepest bass, coming from the tanks, which appear for the first time in the film in the foreground. This film is bookended by extremely active, bombastic audio, but everything in between is certainly perfect, as well. One of the best audio tracks laid down on Blu-ray.
Now, one last thing. There have been reports from readers about the audio going "out of sync" from chapter 15 onward. Using my Playstation 3, I noticed lips did line up with spoken word, and, realistically, some shots show impact before their sound is heard. I could not register a complaint using my primary player. Utilizing my LG BH100, I found no sync issues in the reported problem areas. It appears that this is an issue affecting particular players. Since I cannot get the glitch to work on either of my players, I cannot dock this release based on the reports of others.
The supplement package for 'Saving Private Ryan' is not befitting of a film of its caliber. It's spotty, really, with so many key elements of the film not hit. This package floats like a butterfly, but never stings like a bee. There are no extras on the first disc, as the entire package is found on disc two. The only HD content included? Trailers.
The extras have the occasional flash of brilliance, with a few must-see features, but it is still nowhere near as amazing as it should, and could have been.
The second disc is pure supplement package, and is split into two sections: 'Saving Private Ryan,' and 'Shooting War.' There is a settings tab, as well, for configuring subtitles.
- An Introduction (SD, 2 min) - Spielberg explains his fascination with WW2, his childhood war films, memories of his father at war, and his dedication of the film for the real vets. Just fluff, nothing really informative or deep.
- Looking Into the Past (SD, 4 min) - A discussion on doing historical research for the film, since it is based in a real time period (though it is not in itself real), and the real life parallel to this fictionalized story. The fact that they freak out over finding a coincidence on a tombstone, and decide to run with it, is damn offensive and/or insensitive. Congrats, dead person, your grave is in a Spielberg film!
- Miller and his Platoon (SD, 8 min) - A look at the actors themselves, discussing casting, coincidences, and a tiny bit of praise for the crew, with some random behind the scenes footage thrown in for good measure. There's too much EPK fluff here for my tastes, sadly, as I don't need to see actors praising Spielberg being their only input about the filming. This is called "Miller and his Platoon," not "Miller and his Platoon go full fanboy for Steven Spielberg."
- Boot Camp (SD, 7 min) - The actors discuss the training for the film, to get them physically capable, ready, and willing to perform for the film the way it should be. We get a nice look at the efforts to be realistic and natural to the time, an important element for any war film that aspires to be more than parody.
- Making 'Saving Private Ryan' (SD, 22 min) - From finding locations (and building them up to be believable as war torn), to creating special effects (tank fire, exploding buildings), this feature puts the viewer on the set of the film, just like any good "making of" feature should. Costuming is briefly hit (and is quite interesting), but there are so many aspects that don't get seen here.
- Re-Creating Omaha Beach (SD, 18 min) - Here we go! The most famous scene in the film, by far, is the one deserving the most attention in the supplements. It is, after all, a huge chunk of the film, our first real introduction to the WW2 era in the film, and remains possibly the greatest war sequence ever filmed. The men behind the soldiers (read: slaughter victims) are shown, and it is explained how and why they got the parts. We get so much information here, that we certainly aren't left wanting. So far, the best supplement on the release, and a must watch!
- Music and Sound (SD, 16 min) - The music to the film is almost as effective as the visuals, so a feature on this emotional element of 'Saving Private Ryan' was a must! Music, and the lack thereof in battle scenes, is dissected and shown being recorded. Enjoyable for fans of the art behind the film!
- Parting Thoughts (SD, 3 min) - Hanks talks about his experience with a D-day veteran long before making the film, while Spielberg discusses his comparison between 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Schindler's List,' and the feeling that we are left with is simple: war is hell.
- Into the Breach: 'Saving Private Ryan' (SD, 25 min) - This feature stands out from the previous, as it features interviews with actual veterans, mixes in interviews with actors in the film, and intersperses clips from the film. It comes off very educational, and is actually very enjoyable. The words of the men involved in D-Day are more powerful than an actor's insight or a director's intent.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 min) - The theatrical trailer for 'Saving Private Ryan,' in high def.
- Re-Release Trailer (HD, 2 min) - A secondary trailer for 'Saving Private Ryan,' focusing on all the positive reception it received.
- 'Shooting War' (SD, 88 min) - A look at the way the depiction of war changed, through the photography and video taken on the spot. In recent years, embedded journalists have been so dumb as to reveal troop locations, but in the old days, when propaganda posters encouraged war bond purchases (and even equated non-carpooling drivers as riding with Hitler), the heroic soldiers were captured in a light that no story, no matter how exaggerated over the years, could equal. A massively bearded Tom Hanks hosts this documentary, and may even have a few snacks hidden in his magnificent chin fro. From propaganda (including recreation using miniatures), to John Ford films, to random mishaps (my lord are they spectacular!) involving planes, invasion (and aftermath) footage, and plenty of documentation of the dangers and tragedies in war, 'Shooting War' is loaded with amazing footage, even if it is ugly as hell. The beauty is in the ugliness, I suppose. This one puts the Omaha Beach extra to shame, and is a must watch, like a few of the other bits.
While the extras are good, sometimes great, sometimes frustrating, the lack of a trivia track, audio commentary (obviously not with Spielberg, who doesn't do that sort of thing), PiP, or an exhaustive behind the scenes feature (keyword: exhaustive, considering how some terrible films get ridiculously thorough hour long behind the scenes looks) is the killer here. On quality alone, this disc earns its three stars. On sheer amount of content, it could have scored much lower.
Sadly, none here.
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'Saving Private Ryan' may be one of Steven Spielberg's greatest films, even if it doesn't hold a candle to his previous WW2-era offering. A superb cast quickly find themselves blending in to their roles. Arguments can be made about the film and its message, but it's hard to fault the film, and it's famous opening sequence that can cause severe physical reaction may be one of the single-most effective bits of film ever created. Paramount hit a homer with this Blu-ray release, with superb audio and video elements being given plenty of space to breathe on their own disc, while a supplement package full of good information is also included. Buy this, don't hesitate one second. Regardless of price, be it twenty bucks or forty, it is worth every penny.
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