The landing on Omaha Beach may be what Saving Private Ryan is remembered for. It changed how we viewed war films, and undoubtedly changed the way generations post-WWII viewed the accomplishments of those soldiers. It is not, however, the best scene in the film.
That scene is not even action-oriented. Before the final assault, Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon) sits down with Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks). Ryan mentions that he cannot remember his three brothers faces, all of them now deceased in the line of duty. Hanks tells him to remember something about them, a moment or memory, not their faces.
Ryan recounts a story of how one of his brothers was caught with a girl in a barn, his brothers teasing, and eventually knocking over a lamp which sets the barn on fire. When the story is over, it hits Ryan. He stops suddenly, looks down, and realizes that was it. That was their final moment all together, the last night they ever spent talking and goofing off. It is a monumental piece of acting, but a critical moment of the film, building Ryan as a character like the others under the command of Miller.
That is really what makes Saving Private Ryan stand out. Say what you will about the handheld camera work, the gritty style, and immensely gruesome gore. The characters make this film. Watching someone search the beach for their missing arm is graphic, listening to them speak of past memories and regretting their actions knowing they may die tomorrow is gut wrenching.
Depth amongst these men is what makes them memorable. It has nothing to do with who they are in Hollywood, and everything to do with who they are as soldiers. Everyone is flawed, on edge, and affected by what they see. While Miller seems to have everything under control, his shaking hand and eventual breakdown at the loss of a member of his squad are telling signs of the effects.
Even before the epic war scenes begin, the audience follows an aging man into the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, a moving sequence as the camera pulls back to reveal the full scope of the gravesite. Watching those soldiers end up in those graves, even fictionally, is not easy to do.
Paramount releases Saving Private Ryan under their Sapphire Series of Blu-ray discs. A comparison to the previous DVD edition brings up two things of note. First, the picture has been brightened. This is notable against many of the shots where the sky is visible, blotting out clouds. It also raises the black levels into a murky gray, where they sit for much of the film. Secondly, or maybe more of the same, color timing is radically different. The opening shot of Omaha Beach, as the camera pans down, carries a deep, rich blue tint on the DVD. For Blu-ray, the scene is washed out and pale, as is much of the opening assault. Why this happened is unknown, nor is it known whether or not this is approved.
That aside, Ryan is a stunning Blu-ray, debatable color changes or not. Sharpness is exquisite, rarely dipping below absolute perfection, and even then, it has more to do with intent. Blooming lights, especially apparent as the mission to rescue Ryan is first discussed on the home front, are intentional highlights. Much of the noise is also there for a reason, and Paramount’s healthy AVC encode handles it well. Brief bouts of chroma noise are easily passed over. A constant barrage of white specks and sporadic scratches are evident on the source, oddly almost adding to the gritty, war-torn feel of the film.
All of that sharpness leads to unbelievable levels of detail. As the letter telling Ryan’s mother that her three children have been killed is being delivered, the farmland reveals staggering definition. At 32:34, every blade of grass is fully defined, and the slightly elevated colors adding wonderful dimension to the frame. Facial detail is consistently stunning. Reference level high fidelity detail is constant, especially spectacular during a close-up of a German sniper at 55:35, and continuing throughout the scene. Pay attention to the helmets of the US soldiers and their increasing levels of dirt, every bit of sand perfectly resolved and clear, noise or not.
Environments are equally outstanding. Broken, shattered towns showcase strewn debris everywhere. Areas littered with plant life are truly showcases, especially 42:18 as the soldiers begin their journey to find Ryan. At 1:32:35, the ground’s texture, dirt, and grass are perfectly presented without flaws. The best example of environmental detail happens late at 1:54:18 as the soldiers plan the trap for incoming Germans. The corner of a decimated building stands in the middle of the frame, deep into the distance, yet the fully resolved concrete texture remains perfectly visible and defined. That is how precise this encode is.
Colors are of course muted for effect, although some vibrant greens of plant life can show through. Blood is elevated to a deeply saturated hue, especially disturbing as the water comes into Omaha Beach at 27:59 tainted with blood. Flesh tones are surprisingly not washed out or faded.
Note: Paramount is currently recalling this reviewed version of Saving Private Ryan due a synch problem with the audio. It begins at chapter 15 as Hanks fiddles with a coffee maker, and is slight. It is “just off,” enough to create a small disconnect. Personally, the worst of it seems to be at 2:09:22 as the soldier unwinds the explosive cord. The sound of his footsteps against the wood floor are clearly off compared to the video. One can assume the re-issued discs will not have this problem.
Paramount’s DTS-HD effort for Ryan is one that home theater fans have been anticipating for some time, the original DVD DTS core track being reference for that period. Without any doubt, the Blu-ray succeeds, with deeper bass, cleaner gunfire, and better placement in the rears. The opening assault will likely re-take its crown for aggressive, immersive home audio perfection.
Even before the bullets begin flying, the water that smashes into the landing craft is staggering. Individual droplets of water are distinct in their placement. As soon as the doors drop, gunfire takes over the frame in all channels. It is not just the placement either, but the sheer clarity of it all. It never comes off as muted, muffled or strained. The slight echo is key to the immersion, handled even better as the troops assault the destroyed radar site in an open field.
The finale, the battle involving numerous tanks, is spectacular. The rumble of the vehicle’s engines, their treads shaking the ground, and heavy shell fire is nothing short of awesome. Shattering debris from missed shots is wonderfully directional, including the split stereo channels and precisely calibrated surrounds.
Even during non-action, Ryan offers something to take in. The scene in the church, a little past the hour mark, has bombs being dropped in the distance. They generate a subtle, light rumble in the low-end that continues throughout the sequence, never letting the audience forget how close the troops are to combat. Light bird chirps can be heard during most dialogue-driven scenes, never overpowering or excessive.
All extras are contained on the second disc. The first section is pulled directly from the original 60th Anniversary DVD, an eight-part making-of, including introduction. In total, these supplements run a bit over an hour, although sadly retain their SD roots. The deconstruction of how the Omaha Beach scene was done is especially strong, detailing the safety and intensity of the shoot.
The second section is Shooting War, originally a separate disc inside the World War II Collection DVD box set. This is a separate documentary, hosted by Tom Hanks, detailing the filming of the war itself. This piece runs 90-minutes. Not included was another documentary included in that DVD set titled Price for Peace. Space could have been a concern, although with the additional allotted memory on a Blu-ray, that seems like a meager excuse.