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Saving Private Ryan: Special Limited Edition

The Second World War has been a recurring leitmotif in the films of Steven Spielberg, from the Nazi treasure-hunters in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Asian battle theater in Empire of the Sun to the European Holocaust in Schindler's List. But 1998's Saving Private Ryan was the first time the popular director addressed the nature of infantry combat, and like Schindler, Ryan is destined to become one of the most-discussed films of the 1990s, valuable both as a movie and a historical re-enactment. The story — concerning U.S. Army Capt. John Miller (Tom Hanks) and seven soldiers who are tasked with finding a missing Army private — is framed by two epic battle scenes that are unquestionably the most gruesome and realistic ever to be committed to film, aided in part by Spielberg's decision to present war in all of its unflinching brutality, but also by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's gripping cinema verité approach to the chaos of combat. The entire group of actors is likewise compelling, but Ryan suffered from too much overexposure when it first arrived in theaters with a rush of publicity that divulged the many surprises contained herein. It also has caused this remarkable film to be slathered in unconditional praise. Ryan has been touted as the most grisly war film ever (true, in the first and last half-hours at least), but it is not nearly as intimate nor emotionally draining as The Deer Hunter (nothing has yet to match the power or the performances in the harrowing Russian roulette sequence from that film). Ryan also lacks the thematic consistency of other contemporary war films such as A Bridge Too Far and Apocalypse Now, both of which emphatically illustrate the nature of military "FUBAR" (fucked up beyond all recognition) when Ryan only pays lip-service to it. In fact, it's hard to know just where Spielberg stands on the Ryan mission — is it FUBAR, or is it a noble assignment? At times it seems he wants to play the issue both ways (the operation is launched with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, yet every person involved realizes the utter insanity of it, including Ryan himself). But, perhaps because of marketing, and perhaps because of most people's natural tendency to heap praise upon good films, Ryan is often described as "The greatest war film ever made." Sorry, that's a title that easily a dozen excellent films could contend for, and just because the objective of a film is to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers doesn't automatically qualify the production itself as a masterpiece. No Vietnam-era films like The Deer Hunter or Platoon or Apocalypse Now have enjoyed the near-unanimous critical plaudits that Ryan has, leaving this writer to suspect that far too many people are evaluating Spielberg's love-letter to the World War II generation in terms of intent and not by standard cinematic criteria (or perhaps it's because Ryan is about a war we didn't lose). Is all this nitpicking? Maybe. Saving Private Ryan is a unique, valuable addition to the wartime genre, and the battle scenes are genuinely original — and masterful. But Ryan is only an addition. It is not the zenith. Excellent transfer, aggressive DD 5.1 (especially in the battle sequences), 25-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, two trailers, short message from Spielberg, cast and crew notes.
—JJB

(Editor's note: Saving Private Ryan: Special Limited Edition is also available on DVD in a DTS audio version, but without the documentary supplement.)



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