Rediscovering A Masterpiece
Saving Private Ryan just isn’t the kind of film you pop in the player every once in a while for a good time at the movies. And when this 4K UHD release came about, it was shocking to realize that Ryan is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Had it really been 20 years since I last saw it? The open sequence of the storming of Omaha Beach at Normandy is regarded among the most audacious sequences in war film history and some of that was seared into my mind, causing me to think I remembered the film better than I actually did. As a matter of fact, beyond a few cast members, that opening sequence, and the basic premise of locating some guy named Ryan, I remembered precious little about the film. This turned out to be the ideal circumstances under which to revisit Saving Private Ryan.
Not simply a 1990s classic or among the better prestige films of my generation, Saving Private Ryan is a stone cold masterpiece ranking among the very best war films of all time. It’s simply breathtaking. From the modern day framing device bookending the film, to that infamous and still-masterful beach storming sequence, right on through the primary mission, the script, the casting/performances, Janusz Kaminski’s camera work, and even John Williams’ score… it’s all brilliant. And all of that has to do with the pillar of goodness that is Mr. Steven Spielberg.
Loving both the oeuvre and the man himself is one of the most agreed upon facets of the film world; we all, for the most part, love Steven Spielberg as a creator and as a storyteller who helps guide our collective moral compass in an age where we increasingly struggle to remember who we can be. He’s Hollywood’s Dad, occasionally embarrassing us because he wears bright white New Balance sneakers and pleated jeans to pick us up from school, but we know at our core that he’ll always be there for us when we need him, and that’s indispensable. Possibly the only other figure in Hollywood who’s attained that kind of universal admiration and down-to-earth familiarity is Tom Hanks. How wonderful, then, that these absolute paragons who were personal friends in real life happened to collaborate for the very first time together on Saving Private Ryan. They’ve since become a professional pairing that’s yielded myriad important projects whether as director and actor (Bridge of Spies, The Post, etc) or as co-producers (Band Of Brothers, The Pacific). And it all started here.
Highlighting Spielberg and Hanks’ renown as both major filmmaking talents and as decent human beings is essential to the realization that Saving Private Ryan is somewhat of a magnum opus. Juxtaposing the storming of Normandy up against a heretofore unknown and intimate mission of 8 men trying to locate and bring home another perfectly illustrates the effortlessness with which Saving Private Ryan tells a grand, sweeping story about the greatest generation and an intimate everyman tale about you, and about me. Spielberg slides comfortably between the grandest stage in modern history and quiet moments of humanity with breathtaking fluidity.
The titular Private Ryan (a practically pre-pubescent Matt Damon), it is discovered, is the only remaining sibling among 4 who were sent off to war. The government deems it a priority to locate and pull Ryan out of harm’s way and get him home to his family, as one family simply should not experience so much loss in combat. There’s a (presumably historically accurate) letter written by Lincoln to a family who had experienced a similar level of loss which is used to great effect here as a framing device for why this mission is undertaken in the first place and somewhat of a precursor for Spielberg’s direct take on Lincoln many years later. It then falls to Hanks’ Captain Miller and his small band of troops who remain after the devastating taking of Omaha Beach to locate Ryan behind enemy lines (“It’s like finding a needle in a needle stack”) and bring him home to safety.
What I probably remembered least about Saving Private Ryan were the details around this mission and the men who undertake it. This is where screenwriter Robert Rodat really shines. The script well illustrates that fact of combat life: swinging wildly from tedious boredom to life and death stakes and back again. In their down time, these men interacting become an incredible ensemble from diverse backgrounds who represent all of us (well, any African-American representation is notably lacking and wouldn’t fly today, as well as very little in the way of female representation). We have enough time to know these men and to recognize them. We also follow them through masterfully staged set pieces on grandly assembled sets that convey the chaos and destruction of war, the absolute atrocity of it all, in ways previously unseen (and today oft-repeated) in cinema.
Spielberg and Kaminski together create stunning visuals that elevate the already fantastic script and cast and score and drive home the absolute masterpiece status of Saving Private Ryan. The intimate documentary-style handheld camera work in the Normandy siege has already placed us squarely in the middle of the historic battle and given us blunt force trauma via a sequence so heralded that it’s become a standard practice for war and action films ever since. Moments later, sitting atop the cliffs, someone makes a mention of the incredible view. Kaminski trains the now-steady camera on Hanks’ shell-shocked face through this interaction… we see him seeing the view. His eyes fill us in on the awe. Then we pan across the detritus of human remains on the beach until the camera lands on one recently KIA soldier. “Ryan”, his backpack says.
All this technical craft and top-level execution is enough to file Ryan into the “masterpiece” section, but it’s really the conveyance of humanity that allows the story to stand the test of time. Revered by his men, but remaining a mystery to them, Hanks’ Captain Miller is an excellent character on which to hang a three hour film. Having lost a bit of his own humanity amidst this war, he’s happy to allow his men to speculate about who he was back home because he himself isn’t quite sure what defines him outside of this violence. But it’s on this dangerous and perhaps reckless mission behind enemy lines where each man’s character will be tested and where they’ll remind each other of their own humanity even as the war around them presents fresh atrocity and dehumanization each day. There’s tremendous loss even among the small group we come to know, and not everyone will make it home. But each loss is felt. Each man fleshed out and subtly weighed against the value of that single life: Private Ryan’s.
Damon isn’t even introduced into the film until halfway through. But when his own plight finally has flesh on it and Miller’s men leave the realm of speculation and actually encounter Ryan in the midst of his own mission with his own band of brothers (the only brothers he has left), Saving Private Ryan really clicks. Though an unknown private, Ryan is a stand up guy who can’t abandon his post. Miller’s men become the “relief” that Ryan’s men so desperately needed, and they fight a battle where they’re so outnumbered it feels all hope is lost. In the quiet time before the battle, Hanks and Damon share a scene talking about home, and memories of their loved ones, that’s an absolute acting tour de force and gets at the beating heart of this film. Later Hanks and Damon share a moment in which the Captain implores the Private to “earn this”. If you make it home, live a life that honors the men who gave it all to grant you the opportunity for life.
I’ll carry “earn this” with me in my own heart coming out of Saving Private Ryan. And that’s almost certainly Spielberg’s intent. Tremendous sacrifice has been made for all of us, both on the grand stage of battle, and by our own families and anscestors. We’re all born into situations that were handed down to us by countless generations. May we all humbly acknowledge our inheritance and use our lives to earn what those before us have sacrificed.
Absolutely stunningly rendered, experiencing Saving Private Ryan at home on 4K UHD (and with a recently acquired soundbar) was a breathtaking home video experience. Part of the glory of Saving Private Ryan is how it places you right in the middle of its tale. It’s so engrossing that one can quickly forget about the stunning picture and sound quality in favor of the story itself.
However, that opening beach sequence is a technical marvel which, experienced on this disc, is simply extraordinary. There are also dozens of shots, ranging from close-ups to massive explosions, that look so fantastic in Kaminski’s lens and on a 4K display that is almost does take you out of the masterful story telling.
This release has a third disc (aside from the 4K feature and the Blu-ray feature) that is loaded with a couple of hours of bonus features. These are fantastic and reveal even more deeply the profound goodness of Spielberg and Hanks as human beings and humble masters of their craft. These bonus features are illuminating and charming and inspirational, but the revelation of this release is absolutely the 4K transfer of the film itself. My sense is that all the bonus features are ports from previous home video releases and appeared to be in standard definition and presented in a 4:3 tv ratio as well.
If you haven’t revisited Saving Private Ryan in 20 years, like me, and you’re in a position to experience 4K in your home, this masterpiece couldn’t come with a higher recommendation.
And I’m Out.
Saving Private Ryan hits 4K UHD Blu-ray May 8th from Paramount