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SAVING PRIVATE RYAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore
Director:  Steven Spielberg
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1, 16x9 Enhanced
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  169 Minutes
Release Date:  November 2, 1999

Film ****

I’m usually the most talkative person coming out of a movie theatre…my friends and family know it’s just my nature to want to analyze, discuss, critique, and pick apart the feature we’ve partaken of for our evening’s entertainment.  Which is why they were a little amused, and maybe even shocked, to find me completely speechless at the end of Saving Private Ryan.  I went home quietly that night, sat down on my sofa, and wept.  The film was so much more than just powerful to me.  It was devastating.

Let it be clearly stated that director Steven Spielberg has paid the ultimate tribute to the brave soldiers who fought in World War II, and who succeeded in vanquishing one of the ultimate evils in human history.  He has done so by painting the most realistic picture ever created of the horrors of the war, and what it was like to be in them.  And he does so most importantly while forgoing the obvious war film philosophical questions about life, death, and why we fight.  War is hell, but in this case, it was a most necessary hell, and Spielberg doesn’t insult those who fought by pretending the cause was not clearly understood and accepted by them.

The structure of the story involves parallel bookend pieces at either end…it begins and concludes with an elderly man in modern times visiting the grave of one of the many soldiers who paid the ultimate price in the big war.  And just on the inside of each of these segments is a brutal battle.  The opening D-Day storming of the beach sequence has become positively legendary, and deservedly so.  It begins with the approach of the boats, and follows as they release the men onto the shores and into the middle of a chaotic, noisy, and horrifying fight.  The bullets and shells fly, as do the blood, guts, and body parts.  Some men jump over the sides of the boat to avoid the fire, only to be drowned by their own packs.  The air is filled with smoke and the sound of screams.  Image after image of unforgettable carnage is displayed, and at one point, everything seems to slow down, and the sounds grow distant, as though time were standing still.  The segment lasts about 25 minutes, and I was hardly able to blink the entire time.

When it ends, the seas literally run red with blood, and the story briefly switches to the war’s home front, where for every man we witnessed shot down, cut in half, or blown to pieces, a telegram is being written and delivered to a family who will never be the same again.  It is here, against this sea of noisy typewriters, that we learn of the four Ryan brothers.  Three are dead, and in a beautifully constructed scene, we watch as the army car pulls up to the mother’s house, and how the mother collapses on the porch at the sight of the news bearers.  No dialogue is needed or required.

The youngest, James Ryan (Damon), may still be alive, and fresh off the gruesome battle for the beach, Captain Miller (Hanks) and his team of seven men learn that their new mission is to trek through Normandy in search of Ryan, and have him delivered safely home if possible.  And while I mentioned these men had no qualms about why they fight the war, they are understandably less enthusiastic at the notion of traveling through the most battle scarred sections of France in search of one man whom, despite a grieving mother, really is no more valuable than any other man.

And so, the story follows the men on their mission of mercy.  The absurdity of what they’re doing rings true when they approach a badly wounded platoon for information about Ryan.  It’s clear these men are in horrid shape, and in need of reinforcement, but Miller’s team can’t help them while they’re under their own orders.

The way the men behave, toward one another and in the face of death, is probably the most realistically captured ever in a war film.  The dialogue is always real.  It’s never pretty, it’s rarely filled with deep philosophy…mostly, it’s about memories, the thoughts they carry with them, even a little bit of humor from time to time.  The bonding feels absolutely real, as each actor carries tremendous presence and depth in their roles.  We can look on any face and feel the history behind it. 

And relationships aren’t always rosy.  When Miller makes a controversial decision to allow a German POW to go free, he nearly finds a mutiny on his hands, until he explains simply, “All I know is every time I kill a man, I feel that much further from home.”  Then the dialogue stops for a few minutes, as that one line seems to linger in the air and permeate the madness of war.  And for many of the soldiers, this becomes the bottom line for them in terms of their duty in the fight…earning the right to go home again.

The next paragraph contains a spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the movie, please skip to the next section of the review.  There’s an aspect of the film I have to address, and I can’t do it without revealing a key plot point.

Many died in the war.  Many survived.  And many who live through terrible crises carry with them a kind of survivors’ guilt.  Like the plane that crashes, killing all aboard, except for one person…and that person is left to ponder the question why he or she wasn’t taken.  And maybe there is no answer.  In the case of James Ryan, he survives and returns home because of the sacrifice of eight men.  Captain Miller’s last words to him are, “Earn this.”  Is it possible?  Now, some fifty years later, Ryan is still here, with a life and a family, while Miller has rested cold in the same spot for the same amount of time.  While Ryan returned safely to his mother, Miller’s wife became a widow.  Ryan lives, but he carries with him the knowledge of the price that was paid that he might live.  Tearfully, Ryan asks his wife, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life.  Tell me I’m a good man.”  He may have, and he may be, but he knows in his heart, not one of us is truthfully worthy of the ultimate sacrifice…to have another person die so that you might live.  And in a movie that’s mostly free from philosophical ramblings, Spielberg leaves this one sobering, final note for his audience to ponder.

Video ****

This anamorphic transfer from Dreamworks is absolutely stellar and reference quality.  They definitely treated this movie like the jewel that it is.  All images are sharp, and clear, even through the sometimes murky haze of battle, and all colors, which are mostly photographed in natural outdoor lighting, are realistic and perfectly rendered.  Everything looks as real as can be, which is, I’m sure, the effect Spielberg wanted.  The film is all about realism.

Audio ****

At the time I saw this movie in the theatre, I was still in the process of building my home theatre system, and I can remember a day or two later telling people that I HAD to have my 5.1 sound system in place before this film came to disc.  I did, and I wasn't disappointed.  This soundtrack is easily one of the best I’ve heard on DVD.  The way the battle scenes unfold in noise chaos will have you ducking in your own living room.  The gunshots and sounds of bullets hitting are the most realistic sounding ones I’ve heard, and there are plenty of them.  The track makes almost unparalleled use of independent channeling, and the sound is well mixed and balanced throughout.  The subwoofer gets quite a workout during the many battle scenes, lending so much potency and bottom end to the explosions that you'll feel every blast.  The Oscars for Sound and Sound Effects Editing were well deserved, and you couldn't ask for a better audio presentation than you have here.

An excellent scene that demonstrates the entire disc quality is a quiet scene in a dark church.  Lighting is very spare, and only key items and figures are allowed to shine through the darkness, but each lit object is perfectly rendered, and the darkness is not just a wash of black, but textured, with a real sense of depth and focus.  And the soundtrack is phenomenal here, as the men whisper back in forth in perfect clarity as their words reverberate through the empty building, all the while the sounds of war play in the far distance.  Outstanding!

Features ***

I would have loved a Spielberg commentary track, but I’ll take what the disc does offer…a short documentary, 2 trailers, a filmed message from Spielberg conveying his admiration for the veterans of the war, production notes, and bios for cast and crew.  All are accompanied by animated menus with music, and the chapter selection screens are full motion.

Summary:

Saving Private Ryan is the most powerful and realistic look at this century’s greatest war.  Nothing you’ve ever read in history books can prepare you for the uncompromising and brutal way Steven Spielberg brings the war to life…and he does so with great attention to detail and a real passion for honesty toward his subject matter.  The brave men and women who have died defending America throughout her history deserve nothing less.