Review: Spielberg epic Saving Private Ryan finally reaches Blu-ray

Famous for it’s bloody portrayal of the D-Day landings in 1944, Spielberg’s classic has been a long time coming. Now it’s been released, glitch-free, and we’re left with the inevitable questions…

Can Blu-ray work its magic once again? Can the violence get any more graphic? Can the explosions get any scarier? Can Tom Hanks’ stare get any more piercing?

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating…

Storytelling: 4/5

Set on and just after D-Day in 1944, Saving Private Ryan chronicles the journey of a group of US Rangers as they embark on an unusual mission. Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) is the last surviving member of a quartet of brothers, all of whom had been fighting overseas in the epic struggle that was the Second World War. When word reaches the US Department of War that three of the four brothers have perished, it is decided that the remaining brother should be pulled out of front line combat and brought home in order to spare his mother the tragedy of losing all four of her sons.

Tom Hanks plays Captain John Miller, the soldier charged with leading the squad of soldiers sent to find Ryan and bring him off the line safely. They journey from the bloody landings at Utah beach on D-Day itself through the chaos of wartime France, constantly questioning the usefulness of their assignment, given that the lives of eight men are being risked to save just one.

This film is famous for having probably the most exhausting opening 25 minutes of any movie ever made. Director Steven Spielberg creates a truly harrowing, awe inspiring representation of the near-disastrous landing by US troops on Utah beach on 6th June 1945. I remember reading somewhere once that when the sequence was shown to a group of WW2 vets, many of them were actually quite disturbed by the accuracy of his portrayal of the sheer chaos that surrounded that fateful event.

When I first saw this film in the cinema back in 1998 I remember feeling roughly the same way. It’s an ordeal watching Hanks and the other US troops battle their way over what was in reality only a few hundred yards, and Spielberg plays it out in what almost feels like real time. You come out of the end of that truly brilliant opening half hour feeling like you have just personally been there.

After that somewhat electrifying first chapter, the pace of Saving Private Ryan slows somewhat as the troops start to dig in, preparing for the onslaught ahead. The rest of the film plays out as a less frenetic, but certainly no less vivid, ensemble piece with likes of Edward Burns, Giovanni Ribisi and Tom Sizemore delivering admirable performances alongside the always reliable, and in this instance really quite superb, Hanks.

The sudden change of rhythm from crazy-ass explosion fest to contemplative morality tale does jar a little and the action is only really sporadic until the big showdown at the end. This comes as a little bit of a disappointment, especially when viewed from the other side of HBO’s (and Hanks’ and Spielberg’s) masterpiece Band Of Brothers, which arguably gets the action to drama balance almost exactly right.

Saving Private Ryan is also a rather long movie, weighing in at a chunky 169 minutes. There’s an argument that the stop-start nature of the film, its tendency to go from second to fifth gear and then back again frequently and rapidly, is actually another masterstroke on Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat’s part, seeing as the business of going to war has, for the ordinary soldier, often been described as “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”. Boredom’s a strong word for the calmer moments in this film, but it’s not exactly a smooth ride and you can’t help but feel that these pace issues could have been addressed, and that the film could have come in a good half hour shorter and been better for it.

Still, though, Saving Private Ryan is undeniably a classic piece of modern movie making for its scale, its ambition and its human drama.

Video: 5/5

Saving Private Ryan is shot in a way that’s nothing short of definitive of its genre. There’s not been a war film or TV series since that hasn’t in some way borrowed from Spielberg and his DP Janusz Kaminski’s raw, grainy, gritty style. The action sequences really stand out, with their leeched-out colour palette, fast unpredictable cuts and use of first- and third-person perspectives.

The transfer also seems to share something of the rawness of the movie, in that it’s a near perfect copy of what appears to be an ever-so-slightly aging 35mm original. The grain and occasional hairs that come with this actually didn’t bother me at all as I felt it just served as reminder that this is a genuine 35mm transfer. Despite this charming little quirk, there’s a huge amount of detail in the images, with some great flesh tones and gloriously gory deaths and explosions. It’s the nearest you’ll get to actually being there without donning a tin hat and yelling “Curahee!”

Audio: 5/5

I think I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again so here goes: there is literally nothing better than having your ears blown off by DTS-HD 5.1 gunfire while sitting in your living room. Saving Private Ryan hits the mark once again with some cracking vibrations in its battle scenes that’ll have your ear drums, teeth and God knows what else rattling like your Nan’s tea set in the blitz.

A problem that often arises in films with a lot of bangs, pops and whistles like this is that you can’t hear the dialogue (see BRD’s Public Enemies review for a prime example). No such problems here. The dialogue is directed right down the centre channel for the most part, leading to crystal clear audio, meaning you won’t have to touch your volume button or hit rewind once.

These aural delights combine neatly with John Williams’ superb score to create an eardrum-tingling soundscape up there with the best of them.

NB. The original release of Saving Private Ryan on Blu-ray had a significant audio glitch and was recalled. If you bought your copy before 18/05/2010 you’ll need to exchange it.

Package: 3/5

Saving Private Ryan is delivered in a standard Blu-ray 2-disc box with a card sleeve. It’s a fairly run of the mill cover design with no exciting revelations. Disc one contains the feature, and disc two houses the extras.

This Blu-ray comes with a healthy crop of extras providing a detailed insight into the story behind the making of the film, as well as the historical context and much more besides. This includes a couple of behind-the-scenes docs, with one dedicated to the Omaha Beach opening section alone. The most disappointing thing about these extras is that the vast majority are SD and some are presented in 4:3. Once again we have the issue of a Blu-ray release not really containing much more than its most recent DVD predecessor. The only exceptions to this are the HD trailers.

I’ve always found trailers ot be a bit of a pointless, lip-service extra on Blu-ray. I mean, when seriously are you going to watch them? Just before you watch the feature to get you all excited? Afterwards to remind you of the good times you just had? A disappointment.

Bias:

Spielberg’s a funny old sausage. He’s responsible for some of the greatest movies ever made, there’s no doubt about that. Jaws, Close Encounters, the Indiana Jones series – they’re definitive pieces of modern movie history, and bloody enjoyable to watch, too. But on the other hand he’s also peddled some stomach-churning schmaltz, the eyeball-rottingly saccharine Hook being the best example.

I once saw an interview with Spielberg in which he was talking about his kids and how he tells them he’s a

“Movie maker! I make movies!”

His attitude during that interview summed up for me how I sometimes feel about his work. It’s very fashionable to say he’s “too commercial” and I don’t necessarily think that’s a valid criticism seeing as all theatrically released feature films are a commercial venture, but there’s an annoying lack of cynicism, a fairy-dust, ‘magic of the movies’ silliness that sometime creeps into his films that makes me feel a bit odd.

Thankfully, despite a slight wobble involving a weeping octogenarian blubbering to his impossibly attractive family about whether or not he’s lived a “good life” at either end of the movie, in Saving Private Ryan we get Spielberg the ‘film-maker’ rather than Spielberg the ‘movie-maker’. It’s a brilliant, visceral, disturbing portrayal of human conflict with real heart and minimal Hollywood schmaltz – except for when the old guy gets his whine on.

Verdict: 4/5 – “BUY”

 

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