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
Features: See Review
Length: 169 Minutes
Release Date: November 2, 1999
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.