Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Saving Private Ryan: DTS (1998)
Studio Line: DreamWorks - The mission is a man.

Internationally acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is an unforgettable film achievement that has profound and lasting impact throughout the world. Winner of five Academy Awards including Best Director, the film also captured Oscars for Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound and Sound Effects Editing. More than 70 critics (including those at Time magazine, USA Today, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly) and critics’ groups in New York, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth and Great Britain named the film Best Picture of the Year, while the Los Angeles, Toronto and Broadcast Film Critics honored it with both Best Picture and Best Director awards. In addition, Spielberg received his third Directors Guild of America Award, the American Legion “The Spirit of Normandy” Award, a USO Merit Award from the USO of Metropolitan Washington, as well as the highest civilian public service award from the Department of the Army. Selected for more than 160 Top Ten lists, Saving Private Ryan’s other honors include Golden Globes for Best Picture (Drama) and Best Director, the Producers Guild of America Award and ten nominations from the British Academy Film Awards. Saving Private Ryan was the top-grossing motion picture of 1998.

Seen through the eyes of a squad of American soldiers, the story begins with World War II’s historic D-Day invasion, then moves beyond the beach as the men embark on a dangerous special mission. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) must take his men behind enemy lines to find Private James Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in combat. Faced with impossible odds, the men question their orders. Why are eight men risking their lives to save just one? Surrounded by the brutal realities of war, each man searches for his own answer – and the strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honor, decency and courage.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Matt Damon
Academy Awards: Won for Best Director; Best Cinematographer; Best Sound; Best Sound Effects Editing; Best Film Editing. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Actor-Tom Hanks; Best Screenplay; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Makeup; Best Score-John Williams. 1999.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DTS 5.1 & Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 20 chapters; rated R; 169 min.; $26.99; street date 11/2/99.
Supplements: Director's Message: Steven Spielberg discusses the significance of D-Day and the National D-Day Museum; Production notes; Theatrical trailer.
Purchase: DVD | DTS DVD | Companion book | Score soundtrack - John Williams

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/A+/C-

For once, I'll spare everyone out there from having to wade through my long-winded opinions about a movie. Why? Because chances are that you may already have waded through my long-winded opinions about Saving Private Ryan in the review I wrote about the Dolby Digital DVD. My thoughts about the movie haven't changed over the last few weeks, so there seemed no point in restating them. If you haven't read them - and you'd care to do so - please refer back to the other SPR review. Now onto the details about this DVD!

This single-sided, dual-layered DVD of Saving Private Ryan is shown in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The DVD is also anamorphically enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Because Spielberg attempted to give SPR something of a "documentary" appearance - especially during the battle scenes - many critics have commented on the difficulty they had in rating the image. Much of the film is overexposed, jerky, and/or grainy, aspects that we'd usually consider faults.

I thought I'd be conflicted when I reviewed the picture quality, because it is hard for me to decide how to rate intentionally flawed images. Really, the "picture" grade should be based on the quality of the transfer, not of the appearance of the image itself. In other words, a picture could look terrible, but if that's exactly how the filmmaker intended it to appear, then it should get a good rating. In reality, since I don't live inside the head of a filmmaker, I try to balance what I think the intended image was and how well the DVD reproduces it; it's not a perfect system, but it's about the best I can do.

As such, I was concerned about this review, since I expected SPR to look flawed at many times. I know that the recent laserdisc release certainly was, but I thought that the defects were intentional. How wrong I was, on both counts! I had no trouble choosing a rating for the image of the SPR DVD because it looks uniformly terrific, subjectively and objectively. This is an absolutely fantastic transfer. The DTS DVD offers what appears to be exactly the same transfer as is found on the Dolby Digital version; I flipped between the two at times and saw no differences.

First of all, let me document the few flaws I saw. For one, moiré effects are an occasional problem; shimmering wasn't bad, but jagged edges sometimes interfered with the clarity of the image. However, I must acknowledge that these issues often are DVD player based; I had them, but you may not. Also, if you're watching SPR on a 16X9 TV, I'd bet the "jaggies" aren't there. Since I've watched every DVD I've reviewed on the same TV and the same DVD player and most of them don't have this problem, I have to take away from my rating of "SPR" because of it, but I do want to emphasize that this is one case where I think they may offer less substantial - or no - interference in other setups.

The only other flaw I found while watching the SPR DVD was two minor print faults. When the military personnel drive up to Ma Ryan's house, I saw a brief glimpse of a hair on the film, and when Miller gets his assignment, I saw a small scratch. That's it. Other blemishes may exist, but I didn't see them. I was surprised to see these flaws in such a recent film, but they're not a significant detraction, to say the least. Other reviewers have noted the (apparently intentional) grain, but I didn't see it myself; I think that the jerkiness of the camera movements that might include grain obscured it for me. Anyway, even if you see grain, it's so well integrated into the picture that it shouldn't be a problem.

So much for the flaws. Everything else about this DVD's image is virtually perfect. The picture itself offers an absolutely stunning level of clarity and definition. The image is so strong that it occasionally seems almost three-dimensional. Spielberg intentionally used a very muted color palette, and although the image often seems purposefully "washed out," I still thought that hues looked absolutely accurate. That's admittedly a bizarre state of affairs, but it's the case here. Much of the film sticks with greens and earth tones, and they all look flawless.

The incredibly rich contrast levels really make this film, though. There's no murkiness whatsoever when parts of the shot are in shadows or lean toward the dark side of the frame; blacks and darks all stand as very deep and rich and the definition of the image remains razor sharp. One thing's for sure: this DVD puts the LD - which I had thought looked good - to shame; I came very close to giving SPR an "A+" for image quality.

Which I had no qualms doing for its audio counterpart. Over the past weekend, I reviewed six new DVDs, most of which featured 5.1 soundtracks (Mrs. Doubtfire was 5.0 and The Blue Lagoon was Pro Logic). Since none of these offered very active and involving surround environments, I was starting to wonder if something was wrong with my system. After all, I'd expect films like Mulan and Arlington Road - both of which featured some good action sequences - to boost up the rears, but that didn't really happen.

Any fears I had about system problems disappeared as soon as I cranked up the DTS 5.1 soundtrack of Saving Private Ryan. Without question, SPR offers a tremendously active audio environment. The D-Day scene shows what the sound designers could do, and it's such a show-stopper that it's actually distracting at times; I became so overwhelmed at the apocalypse that surrounded me that I occasionally lost track of the film. That tendency really only occurs during that opening action sequence; in truth, some of the later scenes - especially the climax - rival it ferocity, but my ears had adjusted by that point so they didn't stun me to the same degree.

That's a good thing, because it let me appreciate the mix and how it complements the film much better. As I mentioned earlier, the opening scene is all about chaos, so it works to the film's advantage that the audio helped make me disoriented; that was the whole point. Such an effect would not benefit later scenes, so while they are equally impressive auditorily, they remain more focussed.

In addition to probably the most active and involving surround environment yet recorded, the quality of the audio for SPR is quite good. At times during battles dialogue gets a little lost in the mix, but that's appropriate and apparently intentional. Don't worry - if you need to hear the words, you'll hear them; no crucial dialogue gets obscured. It's all part of the chaotic experience, so don't feel concerned if you have to strain to understand what someone's saying.

Throughout the film, the sound seems perfectly captured. Speech is rich and natural, effects seem realistic and lack extra distortion, and the score appears full-bodied and appropriately musical. Without question, this is the most amazing and stunning film mix I've ever heard.

Time for the Dolby Digital vs. DTS showdown! I've kind of dreaded this moment because tensions between the camps that favor each side of this battle run so high; Muslims and Jews get along better. Actually, the fights aren't so much between DD fans and DTS favorers; it's more between DTS zealots and people who don't think it's much better than DD. Check out the newsgroup sometime, and you're sure to see some kind of battle raging between the two factions.

My experiences with DTS have not been partisan but I've found myself favoring more strongly the side that believes the two formats essentially sound the same. All of my DTS experience has come through laserdiscs, and I'd never compared the two mixes of the same film side by side before now. My gut feeling, however, was that while DTS definitely sounded very good, I wasn't hearing anything outside of the capabilities of a strong DD mix; I experienced no auditory revelations while listening to these DTS titles.

That's what made this test interesting for me: it would be the first time I'd be able to flip between the two different mixes and compare and contrast. Did I hear a difference? Yes, I did, but before I offer more information, I want to make it clear that I did not attempt to make this any kind of scientific, authoritative test. I hooked up both my DVD players (both Panasonics, though one's a 110 and the other's a 120; the 110 handled the DD version) to the same receiver (my beloved Sony ES 333) through the optical connections and that was the extent of my preparation. Sorry, no "level matching" or other measures; I don't profess to be a serious audiophile or to have any great skills in this area, but I thought I could add the opinion of a fairly "average" DVD viewer to the discussion. I just want to make clear that I'm offering my opinion but that it's nothing more. I'm not trying to solve the "which is better?" question; I just want to let people know what differences I think they might experience if they went with the DTS version.

Okay, disclaimer time over - onto my observations. I must admit that it was hard to draw a clear comparison between the two mixes simply because the DTS version was clearly louder than was the DD one; this meant that at times the DTS mix may have seemed more impressive just because it blasted harder. I turned up the volume a notch when I switched to DD (and back down when I reversed) but this isn't a perfect way to measure, so I didn't take much from that test.

Okay, now disclaimer time's really over (had to get that last one out of my system) - what did I think? I believe that the DTS mix indeed outdoes the still-terrific DD audio. It simply seemed more full-blooded and richer, even when I took into consideration the difference in volume levels. Low end was strong on the DD mix, but it completely floored me in the DTS version; the bass appeared tighter and more accurate.

I thought that the DTS mix tended to integrate the sound environment better. Sounds seemed less speaker-specific and appeared to flow between the channels more smoothly. Ultimately this made the DD mix sound slightly sterile in comparison with the more natural and fluid DTS track; I simply felt that it offered the more enveloping and three-dimensional sound environment.

I also noticed aspects of the mix that I hadn't discerned when I had previously watched both the DD laserdisc and the DD DVD. These weren't major sonic events, but small things, like soft background voices and environmental effects. These noises appear in the DD mix, but it took the DTS version for me to actually notice them. It's kind of like a situation in which you hear a song a bunch of times but notice something new - say, a tambourine - when you listen to that tune on a different system. That tambourine was always there, but you never noticed it. After that, you'll still pick up on the tambourine even when you listen to the song on the original system; once you know it's there, you can rediscover it much more easily. However, it still took that different system for you to hear it in the first place.

That's how I view this DTS mix of SPR. It made aspects of the mix that exist on the DD edition seem clearer and more present to me. When I flipped back to the DD track, those pieces were definitely there, so there didn't appear to be a real difference between the two. However, the fact that I hadn't noticed these sounds on the DD version but did on the DTS mix has to mean something.

Ultimately, all of this blather aside, there aren't any huge differences between the two mixes. Both sound great and you're likely to be very happy either way. Personally, I prefer the DTS mix. I think it's stronger, clearer, and better replicates the experience intended by the sound designers. That's speculation, of course, but it's how I feel about it. While both mixes are excellent, it's the DTS DVD I'll keep in my collection and rewatch in the future; I prefer its audio and think it's the better sonic experience.

Although SPR is touted as a special edition - a "Special Limited Edition," actually - it's pretty weak on the supplement side of the equation. One unique feature of this DVD is the inclusion of an Exclusive Message from Spielberg. Others have mistakenly described this as his "introduction" to the film. In fact, it appears after the end of the closing credits. (It's also available from the "special features" menu.) In this two-minute clip, Spielberg briefly discusses his motivations for making the film and he offers a pitch for the National D-Day Museum. Can't say I'll want to watch it again, but I don't mind having it here. (A one-page flyer for the museum is also included in the DVD case.)

In addition to Steve's speech, the DVD provides some of the old "standbys." We get cast and crew biographies for a surprisingly high number of participants; instead of the usual five or six, there are eleven cast bios and ten crew bios. All of these articles are above-average but not spectacular. Still, the quality's good, and the quantity makes the stand out even more.

More text information is offered through the DVD's production notes. These are fairly brief but are nicely informative and provide a succinct little recap of the film's creation. They're definitely worth a look. (The same production notes are available both on the disc itself and inside the DVD's booklet.)

Finally, the SPR DVD includes two theatrical trailers. One is the film's original ad, and the other was issued for the movie's pre-Academy Awards re-release. (How odd is it for a fifteen-month-old movie to feature a re-release trailer?) Both are effective - especially the original - and are presented well; the image is clean and the sound is actually 5.1. Nice job!

Recommendation time, is this is where it gets tough. Oh, that's not because I don't think you should own a DVD version of Saving Private Ryan - exactly the opposite. It's a flawed but ultimately very powerful and compelling film, and one that holds up surprisingly well through repeated viewings. The picture looks excellent and the audio is second to none.

The issue involves the supplements and relates to determining which edition of SPR you should own. The DTS version contains almost the same extras that are found on the DD release, but the omission is terribly notable: a fantastic 25 minute documentary about the film and World War II itself. I thoroughly loved this program and am sad that it doesn't appear on the DTS edition; it's presence would have made the decision of which version to own a serious no-brainer.

But allegedly due to the extra space considerations that are required by the DTS soundtrack, the documentary is nowhere to be found on this DVD. Since the program - called "Into the Breach" - can be found through other sources - apparently it's running on HBO - you may not have to worry about it; tape it from wherever and be happy with the DTS DVD. Or one could rent the DD DVD and watch it from that, though that seems somewhat wasteful.

Ultimately it'll come down to personal choice between the two versions. Based on film presentation alone, the DTS DVD is the winner, but the inclusion of that great documentary means a lot to me. As much as I love supplements, I'm sticking with the DTS edition; the differences in audio are fairly subtle, but they're meaningful enough that this is the version I'd like to watch in the future.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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