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.
Director of photography Janusz Kaminski at times desaturates the scenes, draining some color out of them. Yet there are other times where the colors have bright hues from the golden brown fields of the Ryan farm to the green vegetation and yellow flowers along the French countryside. Some blacks are a tad light.
There's an amazing amount of detail on display. From the different textures of their helmets to the faces marked with beard stubble, the close-ups of the soldiers show the wear and tear they endured. Textures could also be made out on with the realistic-looking sets filled with damaged buildings. The sharpness of the images contributes to a three-dimensional look
With a war film, it's expected I would discuss the battle scenes in discussing the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, but the first noticeable element was the soft crunch of blades of grass being stepped on in the opening scenes. Once the transition to Normandy occurs, it's time to hold on tight because this disc serves up a stunning surround experience. Waves crashing, guns and explosions, and the screaming causalities they create immerse the viewer within the scene and move around the soundscape. As powerful as it is, the audio never distorts when it easily could as evidenced by how extremely well the subwoofer handles the low end. The dialogue is understandable when intended not to be lost amongst the chaos, and John Williams' limited score blends in the mix wonderfully.
Some discs suffer audio going out of sync at Chapter 15. Paramount is offering replacements for those who experience the glitch.
There are a group of extras devoted to the film that were previously released on the D-Day 60th Anniversary Edition and are all SD. Under "Saving Private Ryan" in the menu where they have to be accessed individually, there is "An Introduction" (2 min) by Spielberg who talks about his films as a child and his interest in WWII stemming from his father's service.
From there, the featurettes cover research, the actors and their training with Senior Military Advisor Captain Dale Dye, music and sound. There are a few standouts. "Making Saving Private Ryan" (22 min) is a good feature where Spielberg discusses his approach to the project; producer Ian Bryce and production designer Tom Sanders talk about creating the set for the climatic sequence; the costumes; and the cinematographer talks about the look of the film. "Re-Creating Omaha Beach" (18 min) reveals the logistical reasons they shot in Ireland as opposed to the real beach.
"Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan" (25 min) is different. It's more of a stand-alone piece that covers the invasion rather where the others were EPKs for the film. The interviews are staged in a studio, there's a narrator, and veterans from D-Day are included telling their story.
"Shooting War" (SD, 88 min) is taken from the World War II Collection Edition and is a fascinating documentary about war cameraman. Hosted by Tom Hanks, it's very informative and tells the story of the war in both the European and Pacific theaters and the men who covered it. Segments of the propaganda films made by director John Ford and cinematographer Gregg Tolland about the attack on Pearl Harbor can be seen, as well as iconic images such as the flag raising on Iwo Jima.
Save a spot on your Blu-ray shelf for Saving Private Ryan. This is a disc you will bring out to show off your system, and the fact that it's a very good movie makes it all the more deserving.