I'm a pacificist, and the topic of war in general is something that pushes my buttons quite easily and profoundly. So when I go into a movie about war, knowing it's a Hollywood production, I'm pretty cynical about it. My bias admittedly requires the movie to be of extremely high calibre before I can overcome it and lose myself in the film. Saving Private Ryan fails to meet that high standard.
After a successful (and difficult) mission where Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) takes control of a fort occupied by the Germans on Omaha Beach (resulting in a large number of his own soldiers being killed), he is given an even more difficult mission: find a Private Ryan (Matt Damon), who is the only surviving son in a family that has already lost three children in World War II. Returning the son alive to his family would mean a good public relations move for the armed forces, would make the son's mother happy, and for Captain Miller, would finally allow him to return home. Miller and a team of seven soldiers set out to track the elusive Ryan who is lost somewhere in Normandy.
As I watched what was probably the most powerful part of the movie, the landing at Omaha Beach in the beginning, I couldn't help but think "fake blood!". As part of the same action sequence, during the scene where a soldier loses his arm and stops to pick it up, I couldn't help laughing (causing the people who were with me who had already seen the film to also join in). The movie was simply not realistic enough to convince me something bad had happened at that point---perhaps I'm too desensitised watching slash and gore films. Finally, the plot devices in Saving Private Ryan for me required a greater suspension of disbelief than, say, a film like Life is Beautiful: That the top officials of an army would want to risk the lives of eight soldiers to rescue a single one is one thing. That these eight soldiers would actually find the person they're looking for in the midst of a chaotic situation is another. But the final action sequence, where the eight soldiers face off against a German tank division and almost triumph is a major compromise (read: cop out) typical of Hollywood films. (if I wanted to see this, I'd be watching The Guns of Navarone).
Readers of this review may find my bias to be too strong for any war film to overcome. But given that even films like Forrest Gump and Titanic, which I had initial reservations against because of the hype, were able to win me over, it is not too difficult of a task. In the past, this occurs not just due to the direction and the filming, but also the acting: Tom Hanks, an actor who I am not enamoured with but who has won me over several times, fails to deliver as powerful as performance as he has in other films (granted his role here is generally a more difficult one). Still, the acting in all the major roles is very good. The cinematography is brilliant. The use of the hand-held camera by Janusz Kaminski to give audience a better feel for what it is like to be in the midst of action works effectively. The score by John Williams, in conjunction with the sound effects (or lack thereof when a soldier is shell-shocked) is superb.
In the film, both Ryan and the powerful character of Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davis), an interpreter who has never really faced battle, make comments of the form "this doesn't make sense". War is never logical. There's no doubt that a message to be had from Saving Private Ryan is that war makes monsters out of people, even good people (as evidenced not only by the general behaviour of the soldiers, but the conversion of Upham). But the movie really is about soldiers doing their duty, following their superiors, no matter how inane the orders may seem, in order to fuel the war machine. While I appreciate the sacrifices millions of soldiers have made blindly following their superiors, I would go as far as to say that I'd rather perish than have someone commit offensive violence that I did not request on my behalf.