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Saving Private Ryan is a nearly perfect film in terms of visceral reaction. It now practically defines the public’s mind’s eye image of WWII (which was apparently a very desaturated, high contrast era). A straight line can be drawn through just about every major release war film (not to mention video game) since the film’s 1998 release. The look is so intrinsically burned even good and capable filmmakers like Ridley Scott, John Woo, Peter Jackson and Clint Eastwood adapted it in the following decade. Very few films in cinema history can claim such a direct and immediate effect on filmmaking. Director Steven Spielberg is an intensely intuitive filmmaker, who works best on his toes, and Private Ryan sees him (and his army of collaborators) working directly from the gut. The result is a film less defined by methodically orchestrated visual exclamation points (ET and Elliot crossing the moon, the T-Rex being closer in the mirror than it appears, Indiana Jones running from a giant, round bolder, etc), rather, it’s enriched with a documentarian’s spontaneity.

Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
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Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
DVD


As a massive fan of Spielberg's work, there are three obvious problems weaved into this film, problems I’ve never been able to argue against. The power of the imagery and performances has always made the presence of inadequacies more than palatable, but the film’s critics have some pretty powerful ammo to back up their vitriol. The first issue is the structural. Private Ryan begins with its most wrenching, incredible sequence, the Omaha Beach attack, a sequence that has little bearing on the narrative of the films other two-plus hours. It’s like a James Bond pre-credit sequence, only it’s a half an hour long, and is so gruelling a majority of the audience is emotionally drained before the plot is even laid out. It’s worth noting that Private Ryan doesn’t really have much of a storyline in the first place, and assuming an audience can respect this, there’s no reason the inorganic structure has to be a  permanent sticking point. Still, by the time the climactic battle rolls around it feels a bit like the thin plotting has run its course, and that Spielberg is trying to answer for his unbalanced action. The Battle of Ramelle is a fantastic action sequence on its own (one I suspect had a major influence on Alfonso Cauron when he made Children of Men), but it doesn’t really offer any natural sense of closure, especially after the utter perfection of the first act.

The second problem is the patented Spielberg sappiness, which threatens to undermine the gritty realism and genuine drama at every turns. In terms of sophisticated tonality Munich is the more consistent ‘post-adult’ Spielberg film, even though Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are clearly the more transcendental, and memorable experiences. Private Ryan in particular sees Spielberg’s sentimental default butting heads with his intention of creating a realistic war time experience. The screenplays episodic nature (which itself is incidentally not a problem) enforces this negative contrast. Many of the most affecting non-battle scenes were apparently crafted during the rehearsal process, which shifts a lot of the slushy blame to screenwriter Robert Rodat, whose CV points to an excess of sentimentality, which more than rivals Spielberg’s. There are some sugary bits of dialogue, but thanks to Spielberg’s relative adherence to reality, and the majority of actors' performances, the characters don’t suffer too much, at least once the film has progressed enough that the audience can tell them apart.

Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
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Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
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The sappiness and structural issues play into, and are eventually overshadowed by the film’s most glaring shortcoming—those bloody stupid bookends. These two modern day scenes undercut almost everything the film runs ragged to achieve, and supply heavy ammunition to Spielberg’s most spiteful critics. Beyond the sickening maudlin sentiment (‘Am I a good man?’), the bookends are a narrative cheat, implying for no apparent reason that the old man we see has somehow witnessed the D-Day invasion, when it’s later revealed he could not have (Ryan was far from the beach). Digital releases and chapter stops make it easy to edit these scenes from the film, and despite my usual insistence that the filmmaker’s original vision not be messed with, I actually recommend viewers try viewing the film without the bookends. The beginning and opening supplied outside the bookends are far more emotionally satisfying, and offer a more truthful experience. Of course this is all just opinion. ( Saving Private Ryan has a long and interesting history with censorship. It was unreleased in countries that demanded editorial changes, and has never been cut for American television. Spielberg also waged a personal war of his own against the ‘clean’ versions of the film that were released illegally by third parties.)

It’s the incidental details that end up overwhelming the shortcomings, such as the praying montage that breaks up the D-Day attack, Sgt. Horvath collecting dirt from all the countries his visited during the war, Caparzo’s travelling letter, Mellish announcing his religious status to captured German soldiers, the German soldier that catches and re-tosses a grenade, Miller fighting a losing battle with a cappuccino machine, and the nameless soldier that explodes when he holds onto his sticky bomb for too long. I’m also enjoying this review for the sake of recognizing actors I’d never noticed took place in the film

Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
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Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
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Video


Saving Private Ryan’s grim look doesn’t lend itself to high definition as obviously as other blockbuster action extravaganzas. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński push the film’s documentary inspired images, creating a grainy, undeniably 'filmy' look. This calculated visual chaos makes honest criticism of this new 1080p transfer's perceived inadequacies (blooming white light sources, bleeding hues) a difficult prospect, but as you can see from the screen caps, there certainly is a difference between this and the DVD release transfers. The overall sharpness is unrivalled in comparison to any previous release, which incidentally makes the film grain more obvious, though much finer in size. Details are sharp, and thanks to the use of wide angle lenses, the sharpness of these details is consistent and deep set. Only during character close up does the background turn noticeably soft. The high contrast blacks create some crisp edges, minus any real noticeable compression or enhancement. One surprise is the general cleanliness of night time sequences (of which there aren’t many). Based on the persistence of the film grain I expected the darker recesses to be especially fuzzy, but there’s no real difference in grain frequency during any of the scenes, excepting those brief glances of the home front.

Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
Blu-ray


Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
DVD


The film’s post production desaturation keeps the transfer out of the running for any colour quality awards. The sky is eternally gray, the skin tones all look pretty much the same, and ruined buildings of the last act are practically monochromatic. The lush, green vegetation is surely an exception to the rule, as are the reds (usually blood and gore) and oranges (fireballs) which are sort of uncannily consistent in hue throughout the film. The warm elements are rare, and usually pop very sharply against the grays, greens and browns of the desaturated environments. Overall the colours are noticeably brighter than those of the DVD release, and the compositions are noticeably warmer. There is a history of theatre chains and television stations compensating for the desaturated look, so assuming Spielberg and Kamiński were involved with this release, this transfer could be definitive (the 1.85:1 vs 1.78:1 framing also makes a clear difference). Another aesthetic masterstroke on Kamiński’s part was the slightly skipping frame rate, which he achieved by purposefully making some camera’s shutters out of sync. Viewers utilizing their HDTV’s smoothing options might want to make sure they’ve turned them off.

Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
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Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
DVD


Audio


Outside its dramatic resonance, the D-Day attack that opens Saving Private Ryan is probably the most enduring and incredible surround mix ever created. Filmmakers have had more than a decade to create something better, and I really don’t think it’s been topped. If not for the footage’s grisly nature Private Ryan seems to have topped every audiophile’s reference list since the first DTS DVD release. Well guess what? The scene sounds even better in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. I’ve seen the film maybe half a dozen times, enough to think the shell-shocking ability of the scene didn’t affect me anymore, but those dynamic and bombastic highs and lows haven’t sounded this loud or realistic since the film’s initial theatrical release. Once again I’m ducking bullets, flinching as those bullets hit bodies with sickening cracks, and the boom of exploding shells is rumbling my bowels. Gary Rydstrom’s expertly tuned fine details are rarely lost in the chaos. The pings of spent magazines, cracks of bullets bouncing off metal, and crackle of boots moving over beach sand are all still crystal clear.

The rest of the film isn’t exactly fluff work either. The sounds of distant war echo through the speakers with all the accuracy of a real thunderstorm, Rain hammers the ground, and the sounds of splatter shift based on camera movement. Vocal performances are warm and natural (usually centred), though clearly punched up for audibility, and given echoing embellishments when required, as in the scene where Miller’s company spends the night in a church. The climax is almost as demo-worthy as the D-Day scenes, and touches upon different aural concepts. The sequence begins with the slow approach of massive German tanks, which build from a subtle grumble and vague squeak, to a balls-out LFE roar, crescendoing in the battles first explosion. This battle is a little less frenetic than the D-Day scene, specializing more in dynamic ranges. There are long soft spots between exploding bombs, shelling tanks, and shorter bursts of gunfire.

Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
Blu-ray


Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
DVD


Extras


This, unfortunately, marks the second time Saving Private Ryan has been re-released without any really substantial special features. Apparently Spielberg and company just aren’t interested in re-visiting the process of making the film. The extras here have all been available with various repackaged DVD releases of the film, and probably could’ve fit on a standard definition, dual-layered disc.

The behind the scenes featurettes fill out a sizable chunk of time, but consistently feel like made-for-television contextualization. ‘An Introduction to the Film’ (02:30, SD) sees Spielberg discussing his on-going obsession with WWII and the era, and includes footage from the director’s childhood 8mm films. ‘Looking into the Past’ (04:40, SD) discusses the history behind the film, including a story similar to the film’s basic plot. ‘Miller and His Platoon’ (08:30, SD) discusses the characters and the casting. ‘Boot Camp’ (07:40, SD) explores the actors’ rigorous physical and mental preparation. ‘Making Saving Private Ryan’ (22:00, HD) is the most substantial piece of behind-the-scenes pie, and covers the actual filming process, including plenty of raw, on-set footage. ‘Re-creating Omaha Beach’ (18:00, SD) both discusses the historical importance of the D-Day battle, and the process of putting it to film dramatically. ‘Music and Sound’ (16:00, SD) and ‘Parting Thoughts’ (03:40, SD) pretty much speak for themselves. The making-of featurettes also include ‘Into the Breach’ (SD), an EPK that made the rounds on television in 1998.

Shooting War (88:00, SD), a documentary about WWII photography, is also included, as it was in the four disc ‘World War II Collection’ DVD. The film, hosted by a shockingly bearded Tom Hanks, covers most of the US’s involvement in the war from a documentarian’s perspective. The footage is extraordinary, and it’s satisfying to have it catalogued, but the tone is a little too dry (Hanks sounds sleepy) to garner a lot of re-watch value.

Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
Blu-ray


Saving Private Ryan: Sapphire Series
DVD


Overall


Calling Saving Private Ryan the best war film of all time is probably short-sighted, not to mention unfair considering the vast array of incomparable movies that can be considered ‘war films’, but it’s very difficult to underestimate the impact of Spielberg’s work. I’ve personally agreed with the film’s critics for the most part, but like many viewers my visceral reaction far outweighs my intellectual reaction, and Saving Private Ryan will likely always sit among my personal favourites. This Sapphire Series release Blu-ray is a disappointment in terms of extras (there’s nothing new), but the picture quality is a sizable upgrade (considering the film’s rough look), and the DTS-HD Master Audio sound is certainly demo worthy, and probably as close to perfect as you’ll ever hear from a decades old film.

*Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps, which have been taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page.


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