Upon its release, Saving Private Ryan became famous – nay, infamous – for its opening 20-minute scene, a graphic, bloody battle on Omaha Beach at Normandy, in France.
Spielberg was possibly the first director to be brave enough to show war as it truly is – a noisy,violent, messy, gory, visceral and energetic assault on the senses. It's tough to watch, but it's one of the most powerful sequences you're ever likely to see on film. And as good as the rest of the film is (and it's damned good), the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach is what stays in the mind long after the film is over.
So after the landing, we get onto the story proper. Private James Francis Ryan (Damon) is the last surviving sibling of the Ryan family – his three brotehrs have been killed in action. The US Army, in its infinite wisdom, decides to find poor Mrs Ryan's remaining son and send him home. And so Captain John Miller (Hanks) is sent into France to find him – a task that Miller compares to "finding a needle in a stack of needles".
A simple plot and set-up, but it's a complex, philosophical film. It is perhaps the best war film ever made – not one scene of violence is at all gratuitous, yet every one is frank and shocking. Spielberg brings every last drop of his storytelling talent to the film, aided by the stunning cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. The performances are all brilliant, none more so than Hanks as the teacher turned soldier whose everyman quality has never been more essential to a role. To my mind, Saving Private Ryan is Spielberg's masterpiece.
EXTRAS ★★★★ The first disc contains just the film in glorious high definition. It looks and sounds stunning, and the transfer to 1080p Blu-ray is perfect. The second disc contains more than three hours of special features. Sadly, only a couple of the extras are in Hi-Def, the rest are in standard definition. But it's a pretty decent collection, kicking off with an introduction from Spielberg who talks about why he made the film. Then there are a bunch of featurettes: Looking Into the Past; Miller and his Platoon; Boot Camp; Making Saving Private Ryan; Re-creating Omaha Beach; Music and Sound; Parting Thoughts; Into the Breach: Saving Private Ryan; Shooting War; the theatrical trailer. A good package, but a director's commentary would have been the icing on the cake.