Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Dreamworks Home Entertainment
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel
Extras: Documentary, Trailers, Production Notes

It seems like it took an eternity until this film has finally been made available on DVD. When Dreamworks Home Entertainment announced Steven Spielberg’s "Saving Private Ryan" for release a few short weeks ago, the excitement was intense. Not only is this practically the first major Spielberg title to hit DVD, it is also one of his best and most acclaimed ones. Now, the unsuspecting DVD lies in front of me, and it was with a sense of awe that I inserted this disc in to the DVD player to give it a thorough check-up. The verdict is short and simple. It was well worth the wait. It is amazing!

The film opens with one of Steven Spielberg’s trademark furious action sequences that immediately establishes the tone for the entire film. He has used this opening technique in practically all of his films, pulling the viewers in from the first minutes with breathtakingly suspenseful action and awe-inspiring precision. The opening sequences of films like "Jaws", "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" or "Jurassic Park" all show this ingenuous and masterful signature.

This time it is somewhat different however. The first thing you will notice when watching "Saving Private Ryan" is its gruesome intensity and the fact that it does not let go. It takes a full 30-minutes of heart-stopping and devastating action that is not for the feeble until the film’s pace finally settles down. We see American troops land in Normandy during the Second World War in an effort to break the stranglehold the German forces have on Europe. What was supposed to be practically a massive surprise attack immediately following an air raid, turned out to be one of the biggest carnage in human history and redefined the outcome of the entire War. We witness these men trying to fight their way onto the beach of Normandy while NAZI fire is relentlessly hailing upon them from all sides.

Immediately the film establishes an almost documentary feel through the highly liberal use of a handheld camera and an offset shutter speed. It feels as if you are witnessing the bloody and grueling events through your very own eyes. You witness soldiers being blown to pieces in front of your eyes, you see the desperation and terror in the eyes of the wounded, dying and the living.

The confusion is perfect, as the camera frantically sweeps back forth, dives under water, and comes back up just to get another lengthy glimpse at the mess. Quickly all hope for a safe spot fades and makes room for panic as more and more people die, like lambs led to the slaughter. With every minute, the situation is getting more intense and chaos erupts along the unprotected shore, until all the men are practically numbed by fear, exhaustion and confusion without knowing what to do or where to hide. Even catching a breath could be deadly at that point, and the film puts you right there. Don’t be surprised if you too will be shell-shocked after these opening minutes. That’s how intense the film is.

It seems entirely hopeless and the carnage is beyond description until eventually a small group of soldiers manages to take out one of the German bunkers and opens a passage behind enemy lines which subsequently allows them to take out the enemy. While we savor the glory of the moment, Spielberg also vehemently reminds us of the sacrifices it took to get there. Mind-numbing camera sweeps over mutilated bodies drifting in the blood-red surf of the Atlantic Ocean and the screams of the wounded are a harsh reminder that this victory came at a price. And yet, the war was not over, it was only the beginning of the end, and countless other bloody battles had to be fought.

Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) was in charge of the break-through and following the success he is given an almost absurd mission. A mis-dropped paratrooper, Private Ryan, must be found and safely returned home. He is the youngest of four brothers and all of which had died on the very same day in different parts of the world. In order to make sure his family is not losing all of its family members, and to spare his mother the tragedy of losing all her children, the Chief Of Staff decides to remove Private Ryan from the battlefield. Miller and his men are confused how the life of one single man could possibly be so important as to endanger the lives of the eight members of the rescue mission, but oblige. What follows is an intense adventure into the heart of the war where people from all runs of life have to make decisions over life and death.

"Saving Private Ryan" is another stunning entry in Steven Spielberg’s amazing list of films, proving once again his flawless skills as a master dramaturgist and storyteller. I am always impressed how he deals with serious and oftentimes depressing subject matters without the slightest hint of melodrama. "Saving Private Ryan" is an energetic war movie with a very serious undertone. For its entire running length the film will keep you on the edge of your seat and take you into the darkest part of this century’s history. We see how these men deal with the situations they are thrown into and how their determination ultimately makes the difference. Especially in the film’s third act it becomes breathtakingly obvious how a handful of men try to make the impossible happen, but at the same time it shows us that 5 short seconds can make a difference between life and death. In many of the film’s instances you will find yourself wondering "If he had waited for just another moment, he would still be alive!"
At the same time we also see how some of the strongest men are overcome by naked fear in the face of death, and the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming even for the viewer. The bond that has been building during these fights is closer than anything you can imagine to the point that some of the men willingly give their lives in order to allow their comrades a safe retreat. The humanity implied in these images, contrasted with the inhumanity of the war itself is beyond description. And still, when we look into the teary eyes of the old man in the cemetery, we will never be able to fathom the horrors he has witnessed and the torment he has gone through. We can only imagine how he has dealt to live with these horrors that no doubt haunt these veterans for the rest of their lives.

I believe it is needless to say that "Saving Private Ryan" is a very impressive and devastating film. It is a powerful anti-war drama, although it sets the main focus on the heroism of the men in the front lines as opposed to an obvious subtext. The anti-war messages are much subtler in nature and hidden both in the context and the presentation, although just as powerful.

Director Spielberg takes a slightly different route here, I would assume mostly because we all have learned enough about the senselessness of war itself, as it has been displayed in countless movies and books before. Instead he decided to get away from the obvious approach to pillory warfare and its beasts directly. The result is a film that displays war in a way that I am sure everyone who has seen it agrees with me that this is something I do not want to experience EVER. This perhaps is the strongest "avoid war at all cost" message I have ever seen in any movie. If the opening or closing thirty minutes of this film will not convert you to pacifism, nothing ever will.

Sadly the soldiers who went ashore in Normandy did not have much of a choice. Their goal was to fight for freedom, a very valid goal, indeed, and Spielberg makes it very clear throughout his film that what these men were fighting for was for the better of the entire world. There is a very big difference between being the aggressor and the defendant. There is no such thing as a good or necessary war. Nothing will ever justify any war, because they are always started by fanatics with little common sense leaving the defending side little or no choice.

Masterfully Spielberg creates a tribute to the soldiers during war times on top of this message. We witness the devastation this war causes across the board but at the same time we respect these men in the trenches for holding up. The determination and their willingness to sacrifice their lives to make sure the world remains free are unparalleled. I can only salute and thank these men for their heroism and their dedication to fight for their goals. Dreamworks Home Entertainment is presenting "Saving Private Ryan" on this DVD in an impressive presentation. The image quality is superb, faithfully reproducing the film’s original gritty look. Many parts of the movie have been desaturated in order to achieve a more authentic, subdued look. It almost feels as if everything is covered in dust and ashes, which is basically what Europe has looked like during the War. It also adds to give the film a rough feel that pulls the viewer in and makes you believe you are right there with them. The DVD restores the film’s 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio in this <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer and there are no compression artifacts anywhere on this <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc. Edges are sharp and very well defined, leaving even the slightest bit of detail intact. The image definition is incredible with even the most subtle nuances evident. Also the disc’s color definition and saturation is meticulous. From the deepest blacks to the glaring highlights, everything from the original film has been perfectly transferred to this release.

Featuring a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack, "Saving Private Ryan" is offering an aggressive and highly dynamic mix that is just as flawless as the video presentation. Especially during the battle scenes you will hear bullets zing around your head and the constant rumble of grenade and cannon impacts all around you. Throughout the film the disc makes good use of the surrounds, although in a rather subtle manner in the quieter parts of the film, only to barrage the audience again minutes later from all directions. It’s clearly one of the best and most dynamic multi-channel surround mixes out there. Once again Spielberg drew upon

John Williams for the music of this film, and the result is another sensitive score that perfectly goes with the images and always manages to emotionally root what we see in our consciousness. Especially during the slower moments of the film, Williams’ score makes sure the film never becomes melodramatic or overly thoughtful.

The disc contains a short message by Steven Spielberg, following the actual movie, and a featurette with interviews that covers much of the reality this film had been based upon. From true World War II veterans telling their side of the story, to the film’s main actors sharing the emotional experiences they made throughout the shooting of the film, this featurette ultimately drives the importance of the film home.

Steven Spielberg has once again managed to create a film that is highly informative and entertaining at the same time, as he has done on other occasions. "Saving Private Ryan" is a masterful coming to terms with the past, and to set a lasting memorial for the brave men who gave their lives in order to give us the life we enjoy today. It is also a grave reminder to respect the sacrifices these men made by giving their lives, and to make sure we are worthy the price they paid. Many times while watching this film I was shaken and many other times it took moments until I was able to catch my breath that’s how choked up I was. It is a fabulous film from an amazingly talented filmmaker, and another fabulous release from Dreamworks Home Video that belongs into every DVD owner’s library.