Steven Spielberg's award-winning 1998 WWII epic Saving Private Ryan was most notable for its technical wizardry and its debut on Blu-ray exhibits the same high standards of craftsmanship. So much so, it's certain to be listed on a number of "Best Blu-ray of 2010" lists at year's end.
The film opens present day with an unnamed man and his family attending a military cemetery. The story then flashes back to the Normandy Invasion on Omaha Beach. Spielberg and his team put the audience as close as the medium allows into the middle of this dire situation. Entrenched German soldiers slaughter many American soldiers storming the beach. Bullets whiz by, frequently connecting. Young men turn into lifeless hunks of meat within the blink of an eye. Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) leads a breakdown of the German defenses, ultimately resulting to a successful mission and Allied forces taking the beach.
Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall learns of the high price a family has paid for their service. Within a week, three of four Ryan brothers have died. Marshall decides that the fourth, James Francis Ryan, won't suffer the same fate. Miller and his team are assigned to find Ryan and bring him home, which is complicated as his whereabouts are uncertain after he parachuted into Normandy the night before. Miller leads his men deep into France behind enemy lines to search for Ryan. The decision leads some of Miller's men to question why their lives are worth sacrificing. Loyalties are tested, as is each man's resolve as they suffer defeats in their quest.
The film provides a compelling look at the soldiers' experience. While some of the main characters are a tad stereotypical, like Private First Class Richard Reiben (Edward Burns), the wisecracking New Yorker, and Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), the crack-shot Texan, it's the unique characters that are the most engaging.
Hanks gives one of his best performances as Miller, a regular guy in extraordinary situations. He keeps a brave face in front of his men, but he can't deny a brief breakdown in private when a decision costs a man his life. He tries to hide the toll he's paying, but the tremors his right hand suffers are uncontrollable. The most revealing moment is when he reveals that with each man he kills he recognizes himself less and less and wonders if anyone back home will.
Technician Fifth Grade Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies) joined Miller's unit because he needed an interpreter. He's not much of a soldier, expected to stay out of the way or run ammo during battles. It was fascinating and appeared very realistic to see him agonize and deal with fear.
The conclusion back in the present day diminishes the film slightly because it is emotionally contrived. Screenwriter Richard Rodat goes for a big twist and tugs on the heartstrings as Spielberg is wont to do. While the viewer is caught off guard, it undercuts the weight of the story. The unnamed man doesn't know all that occurred like the viewer does, yet his emotions reflect that he does. Also, for the scene to work, the dialogue needed to be memorable, and it's not.
Criticisms aside, Saving Private Ryan gets a lot right. There are a number of amazing sequences and many areas of the production are executed with excellence, none of which gets lost in high definition.
The Blu-ray is given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer that looks spectacular for the most part. There are a few times where light sources bleed and bloom but those occur on the source and at 1:23 there were faint white flecks occurring during a transition. Other than that it looks great and I noticed no digital artifacts.