Regarded in its day as either the apex of Steven Spielberg’s visual panache and historical efficacy or, conversely, the most tangible example of his “filmosophical” conservatism, Saving Private Ryan now seems the breach-birthed transitional film of his later career. Of course, to arrive at that conclusion you’d have to sift beyond the relatively untouchable content, that of American soldiers’ WWII battles on the European front. And that’s a lot of dead bodies to just plow through. A lot. Unveiled at the height of America’s “greatest generation” meme, Saving Private Ryan undeniably invested too much in the notion that viscera and on-screen grue is tantamount to verisimilitude, and that conveying verisimilitude is the exact same thing as paying tribute.
The movie’s opening half-hour was widely heralded as a new frontier in cinematic combat, one which not only showed audiences what it was like to have been on the front lines, but practically placing them alongside fellow troops as their bodies were immediately and brusquely perforated with bullets and shrapnel. Samuel Fuller’s famous criticism leveled against war films, even his own, was that you’d really have to get an actual gunman inside the theater picking people off at random to even begin to convey the terror of war. Spielberg’s rendition of an Omaha Beach reddened with the blood of the virile seemed, at the time, as close as anyone was ever likely to approximate Fuller’s scenario, what with those CGI bullets whizzing beyond the periphery of Janusz Kamiński’s desaturated, ratcheted POV shots, deafening both Tom Hanks’s platoon captain and audiences alike by way of a punishing DTS surround mix.
Spielberg’s virtuosity is every bit as luridly kinetic as it was in the best sequences from The Lost World a year before, but nevertheless marked one of the first times he directed his natural talent for crafting thrills onto a serious subject matter without completely calling into question his respect for said subject. (Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on how much guilt accompanied your relief when those shower heads in Schindler’s List spouted water instead of gas.) Craft only goes so far, though, which is something that seemed apparent enough back in 1998, as people began unpacking the movie’s middle hour and its trudging lulls and sniper attacks, but has only seemed more pronounced as Spielberg progressed through his genuinely provocative new millennium opuses, a staggeringly diverse and inquisitive series of works that traverse the entire spectrum of genre and political philosophies.
Spielberg’s increased willingness to ask questions and then leave them unanswered only emerges in passing here. In what way is Pvt. Ryan’s life worth the lives of eight other soldiers? What does the death of another human being take from your own life? Why do women exist? Any overtures Spielberg makes to the outrage and surrealism of war end up getting swallowed whole by the notion (however defensible) that all horrors were committed in the name of stopping a greater horror, to say nothing of that final, well-earned, but still incredibly jejune stars-and-stripes tableau. It’s not an offense stance, with Spielberg being both an American with great respect toward elder Americans and a prominent Jew honoring the liberating forces, but it’s interesting to contrast Saving Private Ryan with the Spielberg-produced, currently-running HBO miniseries The Pacific, which more successfully balances the inevitable objective against the psychological toll it takes on those who carry it out.
I guess it's called Sapphire Series for a reason. Because it's not quite so fine as a diamond. But it's still pretty rare. Janusz Kamiński's sharply delineated images are a challenge for home video, but this Blu-ray makes sure all those clods of earth thrown into the air with each artillery strike are crystal clear. The color balance appears accurate from what I remember seeing in the theater, though the contrast seems a bit more pinched during the Omaha Beach sequence. Other scenes, such as Tom Hanks allowing himself a good long cry next to an elegantly shattered steel frame, are strikingly pallid (in the good sense). I did note some shadow blocking here and there, which was especially apparent during the siege of an all-but-deserted French town during a rainstorm. Not too surprisingly, the uncompressed master audio mix is actually more impressive than the image. If you were ducking in the theater, you'll be cowering in your living room.
Spielberg still resists commentary tracks, which is good news for bitrate size queens, since the entire first disc is devoted solely to the main feature. A second disc holds, basically, all the bonus features from both the previous DVD incarnations, plus a 90-minute documentary on wartime photography narrated by Tom Hanks. In all, that makes for about three hours' worth of further deification and genuflection, not only toward those who fought in WWII, but those who donated their hearts, minds, and bodies to the grueling task of recreating it. Suffice it to say, those who think Saving Private Ryan is a flat masterpiece and that anyone concerned about its lack of nuance and complexity are just pansies will be the same ones most rewarded by this package's bonus features.
The back of the box calls is "the movie that helped the world to remember," but Saving Private Ryan still suffers from a forgettable second act.