Seeing “Saving Private Ryan” again is enough to make one forgive star Tom Hanks’ ill-conceived comments regarding racism and World War II.
The 1998 film, just released on Blu-ray for the first time, stands as one of director Steven Spielberg’s towering achievements – no small praise given his iconic resume. Hanks gives a bravura performance as the head of a gifted ensemble, a Captain whose leadership pushes a rag-tag group to save a very special soldier.
The film’s first 20-odd minutes remain the most brutal depiction of World War II combat ever committed to film. It’s enough to make a grown man weep watching young men march straight into gunfire, many of them shredded before they even step foot on Omaha Beach.
Spielberg goes a bit overboard here, reveling in the kind of gore that would make “Saw” fans blush to hammer home the hellish conditions.
We see much of the chaos through the eyes of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) – the deafening bomb blasts, the need to restore some semblance of order and the fear welling up as the earth shakes below them.
The story then switches to the other side of war – notifying families that their sons have died in battle. In the case of Mother Ryan, that means telling her three of her sons have been lost – and the whereabouts of the fourth – Pvt. James Ryan – remain a mystery.
So Capt. Miller is assigned to bring Pvt. Ryan back home before his mother must mourn the loss of her entire brood.
War films too often give us characters who don’t pop off the screen or, worse, are interchangeable when the bullets whiz by. Here, Spielberg casts a motley crue of actors, from Vin Diesel to Edward Burns, whose distinct personalities bring the war home.
And they all get a chance to shine, although Giovanni Ribisi turns in the most wrenching performance as a medic who can’t save himself after a blistering gun fight.
Compare that to productions like “The Pacific” currently showing on HBO, which showcase far less identifiable heroes.
“Ryan” might be Spielberg’s last epic movie of consequence. His recent films, from the disappointing “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” to the morally dubious “Munich” reveal a filmmaker whose talents may be in permanent decline.
Even “War of the Worlds,” which featured one of the greatest action sequences in modern memory – the aliens initial assault on Boston – limped to the credits with a milquetoast resolution.
“Ryan” tromps over familiar topics – the horrors of war, the price of a single human life and retaining one’s humanity in the belly of battle. Spielberg elevates each with haunting sound effects and rich compositions that feel painterly at times.
The film’s extras come on a separate disk, but the wealth of material makes hitting the eject button a tiny price to pay. Spielberg offers both an introduction to the film as well as some parting thoughts, while the cast discuss the boot camp-style measures they undertook to bond as a faux fighting force. The documentary “Shooting War” lets war photographers share some remarkable stories about their efforts to bring the battles home to U.S. viewers.
“Saving Private Ryan” will always be remembered for the beach battle sequence and the silence Captain Miller experienes after a deafening bomb blast explodes nearby. But the rest of the nearly three-hour film is just as remarkable, proving Spielberg was just the right director to salute the Greatest Generation on celluloid.