I am a huge fan of Band of Brothers, the TV series that went alongside this film. The story-line and acting within it is simply outstanding, while the ninth episode still manages to bring a tear to my eye, despite having now watched it over a dozen times.
Where Band of Brothers works, I'm just not convinced that Saving Private Ryan does the same.
I understand the limitations of the movie format; a director has 2-3 hours to get you to identify with the characters, to feel sympathy or revulsion for them, to introduce the story and conclude it satisfactorily. In a TV series you have time to develop multiple story-arcs and properly understand who each of the characters are as well as what makes them tick. With Saving Private Ryan, I never fully get who the characters are, or why they are acting the way they do.
I don't think the film is helped by the opening sequence. Yes it shows revulsion at the war, but does it really show who the characters are? Does it help us understand why Tom Hanks character then does what he does when they go looking for Ryan? I just don't really get it I'm afraid.
One of the things that I found very interesting is that in training for the film the group of rescuers all trained together, but they kept Matt Damon separate so that when they meet him in the film then there will already be a level of resentment towards him. Did it work? Not to the casual viewer. In fact the scene where they first meet Private Ryan is rather lacklustre and neither infuriates nor surprises.
The film is correctly lauded for its portrayal of war. War is never glorious and often times those who are fighting get killed, irrespective of whether they are nice people or potential stars of later biopic movies. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in the movie, war often requires normal people to do things that changes them to an extent that they may not be recognised by those at home.
In particular Jeremy Davies, playing the interpreter, is commended for his reaction to the fighting - breaking down as the final battle commences. It was beautifully acted, but to me seemed to come a little out of left field. He was certainly the most inexperienced of the soldiers, and certainly the only one who had yet been jaded by war or had lost his moral compass. Yet the idea of the complete breakdown probably required a bit more background to really make it make sense.
Having said all of that, I do like the movie. The realism of war is good, the acting is strong although the story is a little weak which holds them back a little. Overall if you haven't seen it, then you should watch it, but then go and watch it done properly in Band of Brothers!