When "Saving Private Ryan" first appeared on DVD a number of years ago, it became an instant demonstration disc for its audio, especially during the opening and closing sequences. Now that the movie is on high-definition Blu-ray disc in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, things are better than ever for the viewer with a compatible 5.1 (or, better, 7.1) sound system and a powerful subwoofer. I'm betting many a videophile will be lugging out this disc to demo their home theater for friends and neighbors.
The summer of 1998 saw the release of two great war films, Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" and Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Malick's film was the more intense, overall, yet the more distanced, too. His detached, ethereal voice-overs made the film largely a series of philosophical queries on the meaning of life. Spielberg's film was more down-to-earth, more rooted in the here and now, its objectives more clear-cut; yet it also assumed similar fundamental themes and probably holds up better today as universal entertainment and enlightenment.
My primary thoughts as I watched "Private Ryan" were ones of pride, thankfulness, and sorrow: Pride in the selfless heroism of so many young soldiers to keep our world free; thankfulness for their courage and dedication; sorrow for the loss of so many lives. The story begins on June 6, 1944, D-Day, Omaha Beach, the allied invasion of Normandy. The first thirty minutes or so provide a vivid, almost documentary recreation of that ferocious battle, and for most viewers this part may be the highlight of the film.
Once having shown us the establishment of the beachhead, the film formally introduces its main character, Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks. The military assigns Miller the unenviable task of leading a small squadron of eight men behind enemy lines to find a Private James Francis Ryan, who parachuted into German-held territory the day before. Private Ryan's three brothers having been recently killed in action, the War Department determines to save the life of at least one of the siblings. The long, middle section of the film chronicles the squad's search for Ryan, who has become separated from his company. Here the film establishes the kind of group camaraderie found in other war films, most notably in one of my favorites, Lewis Milestone's 1945 classic, "A Walk in the Sun." Once they find Ryan, the story focuses on Miller and his squad keeping him safe while at the same time trying to destroy a vital bridge.
The movie ideally casts Hanks as the common man we all respect, admire, and relate to. He plays a good and decent man, a man who simply wants to get back to his wife, a man who feels that whether or not saving the life of one man is worth the risk of losing many others, if it takes him one step closer to going home, he'll do it. But as he says, "This Ryan better be worth it."
Accompanying Hanks are Tom Sizemore as Sgt. Horvath, Edward Burns as Pvt. Reiben, Barry Pepper as Pvt. Jackson, Adam Goldberg as Pvt. Mellish, Van Diesel as Pvt. Caparzo, Giovanni Ribisi as Medic Wade, and Jeremy Davies as Corporal Upham. Matt Damon plays Pvt. Ryan. Other familiar faces we encounter are Ted Danson as Capt. Hamill, Paul Giamotti as Sgt. Hill, and Dennis Farina as Lt. Col. Anderson. It is a fine ensemble cast, and although the film is rather long at nearly three hours, it utilizes most of its time well in establishing personal relationships among the men.
What, asks the film, is the worth of a single human soul? When we look at the billions of people encircling this globe, to say nothing of the endless worlds of our universe, is one life more or less so very important? Director Steven Spielberg says he made the film to honor the men who fought at D-Day. Certainly, that is the film's clearest intent, but one cannot escape the importance of the initial question. It's why the film begins and ends with an older Ryan of today revisiting the graves of those who fought so bravely to bring him to safety. He asks, "Am I a good man?" Have I led a life worthy of all those other lives? His family stands behind him in silent answer to his uncertainty. Perhaps he comes to represent all of us today who should ask ourselves how worthy we are to have had so many pay the price of their lives for our happiness. Like Spielberg's other distinguished war drama, "Schindler's List," "Private Ryan" forces us to understand that every life is meaningful, and that every person can make a difference.
I read that at the time of the film's première Spielberg invited groups of D-Day veterans to attend showings and provide feedback. Two apparent discrepancies the vets noticed were ones that I suppose a little poetic license dictated. The first was that the captain would never have displayed his bars of rank so prominently on his helmet. It would have made him too easy a target as the group's leader. The second inconsistency was that the men of the squad walking behind enemy lines would never have talked to one another as much as they do in the film; it would have alerted the enemy too easily to their presence. Yet Spielberg prefers to create a group dynamic within his squad, to show us the bonds that unite these men in a mutual cause, and dialogue is the most expedient method he finds of doing so. I think we can forgive the director a minor oversight for the greater cause.
Needless to say, the viewer can lose much of the dramatic impact of an experience like "Saving Private Ryan" in its transition from the big movie-theater screen to a smaller, more intimate home theater. But Blu-ray high definition furnishes what is probably about as close an approximation as we could hope for, especially if one's home system is up to the task. The picture quality on this dual-layer BD50, MPEG-4 mastered transfer is excellent, and even though Spielberg purposely drained some of the color out of a few scenes, emphasized some of the background grain, and even softened the image in yet other shots, it all contributes to the general impression of actual combat footage.
Interestingly, too, the DreamWorks' video engineers maintain the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, a genuine 1.85:1 and not one trimmed, as we find from most studios, to fit 1.78:1 ratio televisions. Therefore, you will see thin black strips at the top and bottom of the screen; don't be alarmed. More important, the picture conveys the action on a wide scale, in a picture as satisfying as anyone could want.
There is no question about the sound being true demo material. From a technical standpoint, it is the star of the show. The audio here should serve as a primer for every sound engineer in Hollywood, and maybe has.
Frequency range, tonal balance, and dynamic response are all excellent, of course, but it is the directionality that is really superb. As in only a few other films, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sonics open up a true 360-degree surround-sound field. Yet a word about loudspeakers: If your rear speakers are of the kind that radiate sound in several different directions at once, that is, if they fire both to the front and rear or to the sides, they may create too diffuse a sound to take full advantage of the audio in a film like this. Side or rear-firing speakers are excellent for reproducing the ambient wall reflections of live orchestral music, but conventional front-firing speakers do a better job of pinpointing directional effects.
In "Private Ryan," you should be able to hear a clear stereo spread across the front channels, across the back channels, and along the walls between the front and back channels. The sounds of things like gunfire, explosions, trucks, tanks, airplanes, even the sounds of pounding rain and breaking glass should arrive at the ear from specific locations around the room, realistically and authentically. As an aside, it is why I personally use two separate sound systems for different types of listening, one in my living room in two-channel stereo for music and a 7.1 home theater in another, smaller room for movie enjoyment.
"Saving Private Ryan" delivers state-of-the-art movie sound. Turn it up and annoy the neighbors or listen at a comfortable level and enjoy the remarkable, often subtle, aural effects. Either way, you can't lose.
Note: In early production discs, Paramount/DreamWorks and Technicolor acknowledged a synchronization problem in the audio starting at about chapter fifteen, and if you have one, they will exchange the disc for a newer, corrected transfer: "Technicolor has set up the following toll-free numbers for consumers who have already purchased the Saving Private Ryan Sapphire Series Blu-ray, which provides details on how they can receive a replacement copy -- US and Canada: 888-370-8621, UK: 08000-852-613. Consumers can also return the Blu-ray to the stores where they purchased the product to receive a replacement." The newer discs have a blue label side, and the keep case has a yellow bar-code area.
But note also that on the early disc I could not detect the audio issue in either of my own playback systems: my main, downstairs system (Panasonic BD player/Onkyo 7.1 receiver) or my upstairs bedroom system (Panasonic BD player/Sony 2.0 television). I rather suspect this sync issue is either so minor a person cannot easily detect it, or it is an equipment-related problem, meaning it may only show up if you're using certain BD players or audio amplifiers. In any case, it's comforting to know the studio addressed the problem so quickly.
The BD set comes with two Blu-ray discs. The first disc, as I've said, a BD50, contains the feature film; twenty scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two, a single-layer BD25, contains the bulk of the bonus items, most of them made at the time of the film's production and presented in standard definition. Part one of two segments consists of a series of featurettes on the movie itself. First up is "An Introduction by director Steven Spielberg," about two minutes; followed by "Looking Into the Past," about five-minutes on the research done for the film and the development of the screenplay. Next, we get "Miller and his Platoon," about eight minutes, wherein Spielberg, Hanks, and others discuss their roles in the film; followed by "Boot Camp," about seven minutes on the cast's preparation for their parts. After those items, we find "Making Saving Private Ryan," twenty-two minutes of behind-the-scenes shots and commentary; followed by "Re-creating Omaha Beach," eighteen minutes on how Spielberg and his crew re-created the historical D-Day event. Then we get "Music and Sound," sixteen minutes with composer John Williams and the sound people; followed by a few "Parting Thoughts" from Spielberg, Hanks, and others on their experiences making the film. Finally, we have the longest featurette of all, "Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan," twenty-five minutes of interviews and commentary on the making of the film; followed by a theatrical and a re-release trailer, both in high definition.
Part two consists of a single, eighty-eight-minute documentary, "Shooting War," hosted and narrated by Tom Hanks. It describes the end of the War using real combat footage, recreations, vintage newsreels, and comments from WWII vets.
Completing the package, the two-disc Blu-ray keep case comes enclosed in a handsomely embossed slipcover.
"Saving Private Ryan" won five Academy Awards in 1998: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing, plus a boatload of other honors from the Directors Guild, the American Legion, the USO, the Department of the Army, and so on. It deserved all the honors it received, looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, and safely remains among the best war movies of all time.