|Saving Private Ryan|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 02 November 1999|
Most kids have played war games at some point, but it’s unlikely that the type of battlefield action they fantasize about looks a whole lot like the chaotic human slaughterhouse that was Omaha Beach on WWII’s D-Day. In Chapters 2-4 of ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ director Steven Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat do their best to faithfully replicate what it must have been like to be part of the Allied forces slogging ashore. Their vision is so disturbingly realistic and matter-of-fact that it seems about he only thing they could do to make the experience more visceral is to find a way to actually put viewers in immediate fear for their lives.
Once Spielberg and Co. get us thoroughly inside the minds of the survivors of the Omaha Beach assault, they pull back briefly, giving us time to regroup while the plot proper is set in motion. Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) and a squad of seven soldiers are sent behind enemy lines to locate and retrieve Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), so that his grieving mother, who has already lost three sons within a week, will not be left entirely bereft. The men are all willing to die for their country, but they’re not so sure about risking their necks for a solitary, undistinguished stranger.
Often, when a movie tackles big issues, it risks becoming heavy-handed. It’s much to the filmmakers’ credit that the philosophical points raised in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ about the nature of sacrifice, courage, cowardice and accomplishment hit home powerfully. The emotional effect informs the intellectual response that follows - time and again, Spielberg jolts us with extraordinarily lifelike, plausible carnage, agony and sorrow, then gets us to step back and ask what we would do if we were in the situations we’re watching. Sequences of intimate horror are as wrenching as the epic battles - a climactic scene of one-on-one violence seems to measure within an inch the awfulness of a single death.
The DTS soundtrack on the DVD does much to put us into the film’s environment. In Chapter 2, the waves on the Normandy beach actually sound as if they are rising and falling vertically, as well as moving from side to side. There’s a brilliant effect as we share the hearing of a submerged soldier, who perceives muffled noises when he’s briefly submerged in the ocean, then surfaces into a blast of sound. The report of hill-mounted machine guns rattles the room.
In Chapter 7, there’s a beautifully specific mixture of the impact of raindrops in the foreground and distant gunfire further off. Explosions are dimensional and full-bodied throughout, with a chunk-by-chunk wall collapse in Chapter 8 and increasingly dramatic impacts in the climactic Chapters 18 and 19. The dialogue is a bit crisper and clearer than in the theatrical release, though the detailing in no way detracts from the acoustic realism.
The visual quality is suitably gritty. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, with intentionally muted colors, suggests battlefield smoke and mist. It is awe-inspiring even as it presents image after image to make the mind reel. The Audio Revolution’s Kim Wilson notes that, although the anamorphic DVD reviewed here provides 33 percent more vertical detail than a letterboxed version, it has a drawback. If your DVD player and TV are not perfectly compatible with the disc to produce a 1:78.1 image, the picture either becomes "squeezed," turning tall and thin, or the sides of the frame are cut off (just as in a full-frame transfer).
Disappointingly, the ‘Saving Private Ryan’ DVD lacks an audio commentary track. There is a supplemental speech by an on-camera Spielberg, who provides a bit of background on WWII and makes a pitch for donations for the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ has been hailed as one of the best films ever made about war. For once, the hype is justified.