Synopsis of "Saving Private Ryan"

by Bree Underwood

1998's "Saving Private Ryan" is an Academy Award-winning film from director Stephen Spielberg. It graphically depicts the events of D-Day and the days that followed the invasion. The movie begins explosively, with Allied soldiers struggling to gain a beachhead on the coast of France. Following the bloody invasion, a small band of survivors are ordered to find a single soldier who is somewhere behind enemy lines.


The beginning of the movie shows a World War II veteran visiting the American cemetery in Normandy with his family. He starts to think back to what happened when he and the Allied troops arrived in France on June 6, 1944. The film then shifts to his flashback -- a gripping, realistically gruesome 24-minute sequence that shows the soldiers landing on Omaha Beach. Meanwhile, the Chief of Staff of the Army learns that three out of four brothers fighting in the war have been killed in the same week, and their mother must receive this heartbreaking news. He then orders Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) to find and safely bring in the remaining brother, James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon).


Miller and his unit are still in shock, and they grudgingly head into Nazi-occupied territory in search of Private Ryan, who is somewhere in Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division. The crew is unhappy about the assignment and complain that they are putting themselves in unnecessary danger to save one man. Eventually, they find a unit from the 101st, and there is a Ryan among them, but he isn't the one they are looking for. They spend the night in the remains of a bombed church and head out the next day, when they come across wounded paratroopers. Miller's unit doctor treats their injuries, and they find out that Private Ryan is defending a vital bridge.


Miller's unit finds Private Ryan guarding the bridge. However, Ryan refuses to leave his unit and continues to fight. With much hesitation, Miller plans a defense strategy and his unit stays to help Ryan and his team. They hold out until U.S. reinforcements arrive at the last minute. They blow up a German Tiger tank to save the day, but not before many lives are lost. Miller himself is fatally wounded; he witnesses the devastation around him as he lies dying on the bridge. After the battle, Miller tells Private Ryan to "earn this." The movie then takes us back to the elder Ryan, who is visiting Miller's grave and reflecting on his life. His emotions pour out as he wonders if he has fulfilled Miller's dying wish to lead a good life. Ryan's wife affirms that he is indeed a "good man" who is worthy of the sacrifice of Miller and his men.

Additional Facts

"Saving Private Ryan" was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five, including Best Director for Spielberg. Stephen E. Ambrose, the author of D-Day and Band of Brothers, was the film's historical consultant. In addition to Hanks and Damon, the film also stars Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg and Vin Diesel.