Only a handful of war epics can complete with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998); a $481 million dollar box office dynamo, brilliantly scripted - if gruesomely violent - WWII saga from writer Robert Rodat that effortlessly shifts its focus from the hell of combat to its resulting human fallout and sacrifice. Many confuse the impetus of Rodat's inspiration for the screenplay as direct homage to the fallen Niland brothers.
Actually, Rodat conceived his story after learning of the remarkably similar fate of four brothers who died during the American Civil War. He submitted his script to producer Mark Gordon. Gordon gave it to Hanks, who then gave it to Spielberg. Having demonstrated his passion for the period with Schindler's List (1994), Spielberg immediately signed on to the project. decided to direct Saving Private Ryan after reading the film's script.
The story opens in the present day with WWII vet James Francis Ryan (Harrison Young) making his pilgrimage to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Wracked with emotion, Ryan kneels at the grave site; the story suddenly regressing in flashback to that harrowing morn of June 6, 1944.
Ensconced in their beachside bunkers the German infantry make mince meat of the Allied Forces landing on Omaha Beach - an unrelentingly grim and gripping 27 minutes of footage that is sure to upset even the most coldhearted. Commanding officer, Capt. John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) survives this bloody carnage, leading a troop that successfully penetrate the German defenses. But Miller's plans are about to take an unexpected turn.
In the U.S. Gen. George Marshall (Harve Presnell) learns that three of four brothers in the Ryan household have all died within days of each other and that their mother is about to receive the bad news all in one day. Marshall also learns that Ryan's fourth son, Private James Francis (Matt Damon) is MIA somewhere in Normandy and makes it his mission to either return Private Ryan to his mother or learn the fate of the presumed last surviving heir.
In France, Miller receives his revamped orders to locate Ryan. Assembling a battalion of six Rangers, Miller moves to the small town of Neuville. Unfortunately, the German's are wise to their activities and one of Miller's men, Private Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is fatally wounded by a sniper. After a brief case of mistaken identity, Miller learns that Private Ryan is defending a strategically-important bridge on the Merderet River in the fictional town of Ramelle.
On the way to Ramelle, Miller and his troop neutralize a small German machine gun position, incurring another casualty; this time their medic, Technician Fourth Grade Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). In the ensuing skirmish, a lone surviving Nazi (Joerg Stadler) is taken captive by the troop who demand of Miller that they be allowed to assassinate the unarmed man. But Technician Fifth Grade Timothy E. Upham (Jeremy Davies) pleads for the Nazi's life, declaring that to kill an unarmed man now is tantamount to cold blooded murder.
Three Allied paratroopers arrive in Ramelle, among them Private Ryan. However, after being told the fate of his brothers by Miller, Ryan refuses to go home. Instead, he and Miller's surviving troops decide to continue to defend the bridge until the arrival of a reconnaissance unit.
Fifty German troops and a tank division descend on Ramelle and the bridge. With Miller leading an extremely creative defense charge the Germans receive heavy casualties, although almost all of Miller's remaining fighters are also lost in the raid. While attempting to blow the bridge, Miller is shot by the unarmed Nazi he let free, but an American P-51 Mustang arrives in the nick of time to turn the tide in the Allies favor. Realizing that there can be no rules of warfare with an enemy who does not respect them, Upham executes the Nazi. Ryan rushes to Miller's aid but the damage has been done and Miller dies in his arms.
In the present, Ryan openly weeps over Miller's grave and Ryan's wife (Kathleen Byron) - having also been moved by the experience that has reduced her husband to tears, confirms quietly to Miller on her husband's behalf that his sacrifice and that of other soldiers lost in the war was not in vain. Thus ends, Saving Private Ryan - as hauntingly tragic and overwhelmingly saddening as the note first struck on that fateful opening sequence on Omaha Beach.
Arguably, the film represents Tom Hanks finest hour as an actor with a stellar performance from Matt Damon that is almost as good. Spielberg's direction is solid, but he tends to rely too heavily on the frenetic energy of the handheld camera to lens much of the combat footage throughout the film. The result is an exhaustive assault on the senses, rather than a nail-biting recreation of combat.
Spielberg's meticulous attention to narrative pacing saves the rest of the film from becoming one vomit-inducing slaughter-fest. Yet, rarely do we, as the audience, have the opportunity to simply take in the action presented to us. In an effort to make the experience more real than cinematic, Spielberg cripples our ability to absorb everything in tandem and this is indeed a shame since stunt work and staging of the battle sequences is - after the unstable camera work is stripped bare - of a rare perfection.
In the final analysis, what saves Saving Private Ryan from itself is its human tale - the bonding amongst men from all different walks of life who have been brought together by fate and destiny under the dark specter of war.
Be forewarned. Paramount Home Video's original minting of this Sapphire Edition Blu-Ray had audio sync issues. Replacement discs have been made available to retailers and carry a yellow (rather than white) UPC bar code to distinguish them from the flawed discs. Also, the disc itself has a blue face, as opposed to the original's silver face.
In this latter minting, Saving Private Ryan bests the rather lackluster DVD transfer from Dreamworks SKG from several years ago. The stylized image that seemed to suffer from contrast boosting on the DVD has a more naturally stylized look on the Blu-Ray. It is difficult to assess accuracy of flesh tones or anything else since the image has been deliberately desaturated to reflect the stark, harsh realities of war. Suffice it to say that the Blu-Ray looks more 'natural' in all visual departments than its DVD counterpart, with grain more accurately represented. The audio is an aggressive DTS master that really gives the speakers a workout.
Extras are housed on a second Blu-Ray disc and represent direct imported content from the previously released DVD - much of it upgraded to HD for this presentation - including almost an hour's worth of featurettes, deleted scenes, interviews and more. New and exclusive to the Blu-Ray is 'Shooting War' a lengthy tribute to WWII combat photographers narrated by Tom Hanks and written/produced by film historian Richard Schickel. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)