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Featured Blu-ray Review: Saving Private Ryan

May 3rd, 2010

Saving Private Ryan - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

When Saving Private Ryan came out, Tom Hanks was arguably at his peak. He had recently won back-to-back Oscars, he was recently in the first computer animated movie, and he had just completed his directorial debut. Saving Private Ryan represented the beginning of the then-record string of seven consecutive $100 million hits in a row. It was the biggest hit of 1998, at least domestically, earning $216 million. Worldwide it pulled in nearly $500 million. It also earned him his fourth Oscar nomination, while the film itself won five Oscars that year. That sets a lot of high expectations for its Blu-ray debut.

The action begins during the D-Day invasion, with troops led by Captain John Miller and Sergeant Horvath. Most of their men die before they are even able to disembark from the amphibious landing craft. The battle on the beach is only slightly less deadly, but despite heavy loses, they are eventually able to secure the landing point.

Back at HQ, it is discovered that three members of the Ryan family have been killed while the fourth member, Private James Ryan, is a paratrooper who is behind enemy lines. It is decided that Captain John Miller will lead a group of seven men behind enemy lines to retrieve Private Ryan and send him back home. Sergeant Horvath remains his second in command. The group includes machine gunner Private Reiben, who is openly disparaging of the mission. Private Jackson is the squad's sniper, and he also thinks the mission is a miss-allocation of resources. Private Mellish and Private Carparzo are riflemen with opposite personalities, the former being more educated and the latter being more battle-hardened. Their medic is Irwin Wade, who is someone who deals with death in a more intimate fashion and is the most sympathetic of Captain Miller's men. New to his outfit is Corporal Upham, a translator who is brought in because he knows German and French and both of Miller's bilingual men were killed in action. This is his first time in a combat operation, something he is quite sure he is not ready for.

For the next two hours the men travel behind enemy lines, deal with enemy soldiers, and talk. But as the casualties mount, the futility of war looms.

When talking about the quality of the movie I'm going to first start with a couple complaints.

Am I the only one who thinks the opening scene, the one that ends with the slow pan into the veteran's eyes, is a little ... clumsy? It was so heavy-handed in its attempt to be emotional that it wasn't effective, at least not with me. There were a couple other times where shots came close to the border between emotional and manipulative, as if the director wasn't sure the material could stand on its own. But starting the film with a shot like this hurt. In fact, the present day prologue felt completely unnecessary.

Secondly, this film felt like practically every other World War II movie I've ever seen. For that matter, I've seen a number of Vietnam movies that have a high number of similarities to this one. It has a group of soldiers being led behind enemies for a mission that not everyone believes in: they have to deal with casualties, a lot of the soldier archetypes are here, there's bonding, anger, loss, etc.

That said, while there might not be a whole lot of originality here, the execution is among the best the genre has to offer. It's among the best, period. It shows war in a way that is as realistic as one could expect while emphasizing the humanity. The acting is fantastic from top to bottom, including a number of amazing actors in small roles (Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, it even has Nathan Fillion in one of his earliest roles). The directing and screenplay are almost flawless, with just the minor complaints mentioned above. Technically, this film is amazing and it deserved every Oscar it won and it probably deserved a few more. (Shakespeare in Love was overrated and had Tom Hanks won his third Oscar in five years, it would not have been undeserved.)

The film's debut on High Definition is flawless, sort of. There's a lot of grain and in many scene the color is faded, etc. However, these were choices made by the director to make the movie feel like it was almost a newsreel and the transfer reproduces the director's vision as well as one could expect. Arguably one of the best-looking Blu-rays I've reviewed. The audio is even better, with excellent use of surround speakers while the bass levels are excellent and the dialogue is clear. It's everything you could want in a audio track.

There are no extras on the first DVD, which is disappointing for those hoping for an audio commentary track. However, since Steven Spielberg never does audio commentary tracks, this is not surprising. The second disc is loaded with featurettes and includes almost all of the extras from the World War Collection release of the DVD. This includes Shooting War, a feature-length documentary about the people who filmed World War II. In total, there are more than three hours of bonus features. However, none of them are Blu-ray exclusive and none of them are in High Definition. So it's really shovelware, but at least there are a lot of extras ported over.

The Verdict

On the one hand, Saving Private Ryan is an amazing movie and outside the original theatrical experience, it has never looked or sounded as good as it does on Blu-ray. On the other hand, the Blu-ray release is shovelware with no new extras and none of the extras presented in High Definition. That said, it is definitely worth picking up at this price and it is even worth upgrading.

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