Is the search for one man among millions either rational or moral, considering the numbers of men who are risked in the operation
Essentially this is a rhetorical question that is never answered, but along the way Spielberg examines many characteristics of WWII, especially of the D-day landings and the final year of the war which subsequently occurred. The theme of memory is essential to Saving Private Ryan: - the film starts with an elderly man walking along the now peaceful seashore of France, closely followed, but at a respectful distance, by his family. He is obviously remembering things that they cannot possibly understand, but which they will be a witness to. In many ways the dutiful family are representative of the movie's audience (the vast majority of whom did not fight on D-Day) as well as perhaps Steven Spielberg himself.
One of the major differences between Saving Private Ryan and other movies which have attempted to show a more positive aspect to war (for example The Longest Day) is that Spielberg is not attempting to whitewash the full horrors of war. Rather, as the opening scene on the beach illustrates, he is attempting to give the audience as near as possible the actual experience of the American soldiers landing on the beach for D-Day. This was bloody, brutal, often involving futile and decidedly unheroic deaths; yet at the same time it was part of an overall effort that is seen as heroic (Gilbert, 2004).
In the landing craft as it approaches the shoreline men are throwing up, some are visibly shaking with fear, all look utterly terrified. This is as far from the pleasant but absurdly unrealistic bravado of a John Wayne in many WWII films. One many fingers his crucifix, another the butt of his rifle. The character played by Tom Hanks attempts to be a leader "I'll meet you at the top", but soon languishes into what appears to be a near shocked state. The landing craft opens up and those men at the front are immediately killed by a spray of heavy machine gun fire. Spielberg made sure to make these deaths as visceral as possible - both in sight and sound. We hear the bullets pass straight through the soldiers' heads, see the pieces of brain spatter onto their comrades. Within seconds the audience also sees men drown from the weight of their equipment before they even reach the shore.
So Spielberg announces that this will be a harrowingly realistic portrayal of warfare, and particularly the bloody advance of Americans on D-Day on Omaha Beach, as well as a more reflective consideration of the value of a single human life within war. The concentration upon a single human being is in many ways exemplified by the narrow focus of the experience of Cpt. John Miller (Portrayed by Tom Hanks) as he seems to fade in and out of a near catatonic state on the beach. Sound disappears at times and men are blown up in slow motion. The fat from a burning human body is sprayed across Miller's face, a man wanders past carrying his own arm which has just been blown off. This mixture of the deeply personal experience of one man (Miller) with the largest military operation in history (D-Day).
The search for Private Ryan never actually occurred, but it was based, at