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Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Damon
Robert Rodat

The mission is a man.
Box Office:
$70 million.
Opening Weekend
$30.576 million on 2463 screens.
Domestic Gross
$216.119 million.
Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence, and for language.

Academy Awards:
Won for Best Director; Best Cinematographer; Best Sound; Best Sound Effects Editing; Best Film Editing.
Nominated for Best Picture; Best Actor-Tom Hanks; Best Screenplay; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Makeup; Best Score-John Williams.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Surround 2.0

Runtime: 169 min.
Price: $26.99
Release Date: 11/2/1999

• Director's Message: Steven Spielberg discusses the significance of D-Day and
• the National D-Day Museum
• "Into the Beach" Featurette: A 25-minute behind-the-scenes on the production and interviews with cast and crew
• Production Notes
• Theatrical Trailer

Companion book
Score soundtrack

Search Products:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Whoopee! The long national nightmare may be over! Although DVDs have existed on the market for more than two and a half years, films directed by Steven Spielberg - or even produced, or written, or even watched by him - have been extremely scarce. A few of his productions popped up early on (The Color Purple was the only one directed by Senor Spielbergo) and tids and bits showed up on occasion, but before now, only three more Steve-directed films appeared on DVD, and those (1941, Amistad and Always) weren't exactly "A"-list titles. Perhaps Spielberg was working his way through an alphabetical listing of his films (with numerical titles listed first).

Much consternation and name-calling has existed within the circles of DVD fans over this state of affairs, and many wondered if Spielberg's most popular films would ever hit DVD. I don't know what 2000 holds, but it certainly looks rosier than it did a few months ago now that we finally have Saving Private Ryan, a certified Spielberg blockbuster, available on DVD.

I don't know if SPR will stand the test of time as well as many of Spielberg's other films; classics like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark all stand as some of the very best films ever made, and I don't think that SPR deserves to be mentioned in that company. What it is, however, is a flawed yet very effective little war movie.

Hmm... I suppose "little" isn't the best term to use, because this is a "big" affair. Clearly no expense has been spared to depict Spielberg's vision of some events - partly true, partly fictional - during the later stages of World War II. Much has been made about the film's opening sequence, which restages one of the D-Day assaults in France. Without question, this scene shows the graphic horrors of war with a level of detail to which we are not accustomed; the blood and body parts really fly throughout this approximately 25-minute frenzy.

I have to say, however, that as relentless and amazing as the scene is, it definitely loses a fair amount of its impact upon repeated viewings. I think this is because the scene derived much of its power not simply from the drama of the situation but largely from the chaos in the environment; the images were confused and bombastic and made the viewer feel like he or she was right in the middle of the war. While that partly remains true, when you've seen the movie a few times, the chaotic nature departs simply because you become so familiar with what will happen. The segment remains compelling, but less and less so, at least for me.

The converse seems partly true. When I watched the DVD of SPR, it was the fourth time I'd seen the film since its July 1998 release, and the second time in the last three months (I obtained the laserdisc release in July 1999) and I felt I was starting to get kind of sick of the movie. However, I found myself surprisingly involved in the story the fourth time around and although I'm not as interested in the opening scene as I used to be, I found that many of the other segments definitely retain their effectiveness.

SPR is a very inconsistent film and has a few fundamental weaknesses. Key among these are that the plot is pretty thin and the characters tend toward caricature and are crudely drawn. Those criticisms are right on the mark, and the lack of truly interesting characters is probably the movie's main problem, especially as one views the film additional times; our protagonists seem less and less appealing to me with each screening.

However, I find that despite their flaws, the characters still keep me involved in the story and help me better connect to it on an emotional level. I think that's why the D-Day scene has become less effective for me; since we don't know the characters at that point in the story, it relies on shock and its considerable firepower to provoke us, and those factors become less significant with more viewings. The rest of the film's action sequences don't suffer from the same problem, partly because they're much more tightly focussed but also because they feature characters we now know and about whom we have some concern (even if they are somewhat cartoonish).

It really is these action sequences that drive the film. SPR operates on a pretty consistent pattern of dramatic fight sequence, getting-to-know-the-characters quiet time, lather, rinse and repeat. The character-driven scenes get tiresome pretty quickly. Let me emphasize that this is not the fault of the actors. I thought that the roles were uniformly well-acted, and though Tom Hanks seemed vaguely out of place as Captain Miller, he came through in the end.

No, the problem with the character-driven scenes is that there are such weakly-written characters driving them. These are the same stereotypical Army boys who've appeared in movies for decades, and other than the graphic level of the content, there's nothing to differentiate them between their predecessors. Only the likeability of the actors in the roles keeps them from being total washouts; while none of the actors honestly shines, they all do so much better than they should that I found their work most impressive.

Still, while the "adult" Steven - you know, the one who makes "serious" films like Schindler's List, Amistad and SPR - wants us to see him as a compelling and detailed dramatist, it's roller-coaster Steve who bails his more pretentious alter ego out in the end. Many have felt that SPR offers very little of worth after the D-Day scene and that the film cruises on the effect of that segment. I think that's unfair, but I agree that the movie lives and dies on its action pieces. I just find that in their own ways, the action portions that follow the opening act are just as effective as it.

Between the large-scale opening and closing scenes - the film's climax depicts a squad defending a bridge - all of the other battle segments focus on the war in a much more intimate setting. Instead of observing mass death and mutilation, these parts give us one or maybe two injured parties. Although this tends to be formulaic, it still works well; it propels the story along but doesn't overwhelm the audience, something that too many epic battle scenes would have done.

Ultimately, I find the final battle in the film to be more satisfying than the opening scene simply because it is so much more tightly focussed. It ties things up a little too neatly, but it offers more of an emotional impact than does the first scene and it completes the film on an appropriate note.

Actually, I can't say that the final battle ends the film - or that the D-Day scene opens it - because Spielberg chose to bookend the movie with present day shots of an old man in a French cemetery. He's obviously a veteran of the war and I guess most of the movie is supposed to be his memories. Without spoiling too much for anyone who hasn't seen the film, this makes no sense, because the man turns out not to have actually witnessed more than half of the events in the movie, but hey - creative license! Anyway, I didn't care for these scenes; they seem unnecessarily maudlin and do nothing to accentuate the drama. However, I do enjoy watching the old man's granddaughter - the one in the tight purple shirt. Ooh, baby! They need to make a sequel all about her! (Insert your own "privates" joke here.)

Speaking of overly sentimental aspects of the film, I'd have to include John Williams' score in that category. I found his music to intrude on the action far too much of the time. It appears during scenes where it's completely unnecessary, and it overdoes things much of the time. Far too many shots are tarnished by the forced emotion of Williams' music. A good score accentuates feelings - it doesn't try to create them. Williams is guilty of the latter offense. Really, the score's not terrible; I just found it to be somewhat oppressive.

Overall, I find Saving Private Ryan to be a film that features many problems but one that ultimately does the job it needs to do. This isn't a war film that offers any form of objectivity; if you want to see a military movie that can be easily embraced by both hawks and doves alike, watch Patton. While SPR tends toward the jingoistic side of the street, it still depicts war in a more brutal and terrifying manner than we're used to seeing, and it makes for a very effective film.

So after such a long buildup, was SPR worth the wait? Yes, and yes! After a late start - they were the last major film studio to release DVDs - DreamWorks have consistently shown that they produce some of the finest DVDs on the market, and SPR will do nothing to tarnish that reputation.

The DVD Grades: Picture A / Audio A+ / Bonus B-

This single-sided, dual-layered DVD of SPR is shown in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The DVD is also anamorphically-enhanced. Because Spielberg attempted to give SPR something of a "documentary" appearance - especially during the battle scenes - many critics have commented on the difficulty they had in rating the image. Much of the film is overexposed, jerky, and/or grainy, aspects that we'd usually consider faults.

I thought I'd be conflicted when I reviewed the picture quality, because it is hard for me to decide how to rate intentionally flawed images. Really, the "picture" grade should be based on the quality of the transfer, not of the appearance of the image itself. In other words, a picture could look terrible, but if that's exactly how the filmmaker intended it to appear, then it should get a good rating. In reality, since I don't live inside the head of a filmmaker, I try to balance what I think the intended image was and how well the DVD reproduces it; it's not a perfect system, but it's about the best I can do.

As such, I was concerned about this review, since I expected SPR to look flawed at many times. I know that the recent laserdisc release certainly was, but I thought that the defects were intentional. How wrong I was, on both counts! I had no trouble choosing a rating for the image of the SPR DVD because it looks uniformly terrific, subjectively and objectively. This is an absolutely fantastic transfer.

First of all, let me document the few flaws I saw. For one, moiré effects are an occasional problem; shimmering wasn't bad, but jagged edges sometimes interfered with the clarity of the image. However, I must acknowledge that these issues often are DVD player based; I had them, but you may not. Also, if you're watching SPR on a 16X9 TV, I'd bet the "jaggies" aren't there. Since I've watched every DVD I've reviewed on the same TV and the same DVD player and most of them don't have this problem, I have to take away from my rating of SPR because of it, but I do want to emphasize that this is one case where I think they may offer less substantial - or no - interference in other setups.

The only other flaw I found while watching the SPR DVD was two minor print faults. When the military personnel drive up to Ma Ryan's house, I saw a brief glimpse of a hair on the film, and when Miller gets his assignment, I saw a small scratch. That's it. Other blemishes may exist, but I didn't see them. I was surprised to see these flaws in such a recent film, but they're not a significant detraction, to say the least. Other reviewers have noted the (apparently intentional) grain, but I didn't see it myself; I think that the jerkiness of the camera movements that might include grain obscured it for me. Anyway, even if you see grain, it's so well integrated into the picture that it shouldn't be a problem.

So much for the flaws. Everything else about this DVD's image is virtually perfect. The picture itself offers an absolutely stunning level of clarity and definition. The image is so strong that it occasionally seems almost three-dimensional. Spielberg intentionally used a very muted color palette, and although the image often seems purposefully "washed out," I still thought that hues looked absolutely accurate. That's admittedly a bizarre state of affairs, but it's the case here. Much of the film sticks with greens and earth tones, and they all look flawless.

The incredibly rich contrast levels really make this film, though. There's no murkiness whatsoever when parts of the shot are in shadows or lean toward the dark side of the frame; blacks and darks all stand as very deep and rich and the definition of the image remains razor sharp. One thing's for sure: this DVD puts the LD - which I had thought looked good - to shame; I came very close to giving SPR an "A+" for image quality.

Which I had no qualms doing for its audio counterpart. If I can't give the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of SPR an "A+," then nothing deserves that rating. Whatever soundtrack you used to use as your "demo" to show off your system - put it back in the closet. Here's your new fave.

Without question, SPR offers a tremendously active audio environment. The D-Day scene shows what the sound designers could do, and it's such a show-stopper that it's actually distracting at times; I became so overwhelmed at the apocalypse that surrounded me that I occasionally lost track of the film. That tendency really only occurs during that opening action sequence; in truth, some of the later scenes - especially the climax - rival it ferocity, but my ears had adjusted by that point so they didn't stun me to the same degree.

That's a good thing, because it let me appreciate the mix and how it complements the film much better. As I mentioned earlier, the opening scene is all about chaos, so it works to the film's advantage that the audio helped make me disoriented; that was the whole point. Such an effect would not benefit later scenes, so while they are equally impressive auditorily, they remain more focussed.

In addition to possibly the most active and involving surround environment yet recorded, the quality of the audio for SPR is quite good. At times during battles dialogue gets lost in the mix, but that's appropriate and apparently intentional. Don't worry - if you need to hear the words, you'll hear them; no necessary dialogue gets obscured. It's all part of the chaotic experience, so don't feel concerned if you have to strain to understand what someone's saying.

Throughout the film, the sound seems perfectly captured. Speech is rich and natural, effects seem realistic and lack extra distortion, and the score appears full-bodied and appropriately musical. Ultimately I'll be reviewing the DTS sound mix for SPR, which I'll be interested to hear, but I have trouble seeing how it could improve on this Dolby track.

Although SPR is touted as a special edition - a "Special Limited Edition," actually - it's a little weak on the supplement side of the equation, though it offers some tasty extras. Easily the most compelling and significant piece here is Into the Breach, a 25-minute documentary behind the making of the film. Actually, the program spends much less time talking about SPR than it does relating historical data. In addition to some fine interviews with veterans, we get a fascinating glimpse at the roots of Spielberg's interest in the war, including some amazing clips of his early home movies. This is a great little documentary, and it actually manages to be more moving than the film itself! My only fault with it? Not long enough!

One unique feature of this DVD is the inclusion of an Exclusive Message from Spielberg. Others have mistakenly described this as his "introduction" to the film. In fact, it appears after the end of the closing credits. (It's also available from the "special features" menu.) In this two-minute clip, Spielberg briefly discusses his motivations for making the film and he offers a pitch for the National D-Day Museum. Can't say I'll want to watch it again, but I don't mind having it here. (A one-page flyer for the museum is also included in the DVD case.)

In addition to the documentary and Steve's speech, the DVD provides some of the old "standbys." We get cast and crew biographies for a surprisingly high number of participants; instead of the usual five or six, there are eleven cast bios and ten crew bios. All of these articles are above-average but not spectacular. Still, the quality's good, and the quantity makes the stand out even more.

More text information is offered through the DVD's production notes. These are fairly brief but are nicely informative. In fact, they may provide more actual details of the making of SPR than we hear in the documentary! They're definitely worth a look. (The production notes are available both on the disc itself and inside the DVD's booklet.)

Finally, the SPR DVD includes two theatrical trailers. One is the film's original ad, and the other was issued for the movie's pre-Academy Awards re-release. (How odd is it for a fifteen-month-old movie to feature a re-release trailer?) Both are effective - especially the original - and are presented well; the image is clean and the sound is actually 5.1. Nice job!

Overall Saving Private Ryan is another class-act production from Dreamworks. The movie's flawed but overall very good, and the DVD offers picture and sound quality second to none. The supplements aren't extensive, but what appears here is very high quality. It may have taken nearly three years for Spielberg to finally loosen up and allow a movie studio to release one of his big-ticket movies on DVD, but it was indeed worth the wait.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6317 Stars Number of Votes: 353
5 3:
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