This film is particularly notable for the intensity of the scenes in its first thirty minutes, which depict the Omaha beachhead assault of June 6, 1944 in often graphic detail. Thereafter it is settles into the fictional tale of the search for a paratrooper of the United States 101st Airborne Division.
Spielberg later pursued his interest in the liberation of Europe with the television mini-series Band of Brothers which he co-produced with Tom Hanks.
The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and won five: for Best Director, Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn), Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing. The film was widely considered to be picked as winner of the Best Picture award, but lost to Shakespeare in Love. Saving Private Ryan's failure to win a Best Original Screenplay award is sometimes blamed on an SGA investigation into Steven Spielberg's statements that such notable writers as Steven Zaillian and William Goldman had worked on the script, despite the fact that Robert Rodat had received solo credit as screenwriter.
After living through the hellish assault of Omaha beach on D-Day, US Army Ranger captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) is given a new assignment: to find Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), a member of the 101st Airborne Division, which was scattered widely across Normandy. Ryan's three brothers had recently been killed in action and, upon learning that Ryan's mother was to be notified of all three deaths at the same time, General George Marshall personally decides to send a squad to rescue and retrieve Ryan.
The protagonist through most of the movie is Captain Miller, a veteran soldier who has seen action in North Africa and Italy. The uncovering of Miller's civilian background becomes a sub-plot of the film as the men under his command form a monetary pool on his origins, which he steadfastly refuses to reveal. The subtext of this refusal appears to be based on Miller's belief that his civilian occupation (as a schoolteacher, it turns out) was part of a "different life" and has no place in combat.
The scene in which he reveals his former occupation is one where his squad members appear ready to violate the "civilized rules" of warfare and execute a German prisoner. Miller's revelation of his civilian past injects a reminder of their lives outside the war; "civilized" behavior reasserts itself and the prisoner is set free. However, in two ironic twists, it is this same German soldier who, in the heat of battle, recognises and shoots Miller at the end of the movie and who, in turn, is vengefully shot dead at point blank range by the only man, Corporal Upham in Miller's squad who, because it was "against the rules", had opposed the execution of the prisoner, underscoring the potential "costs" of ethical behavior and demonstrating how the experience of warfare readily erodes our sense of right and wrong.
Under intensely difficult circumstances, Miller displays a decisive and courageous manner to his soldiers - his suppressed nervousness is communicated to them only by an occasional shaking of his right hand, which to his consternation he cannot control.
Eventually, at the cost of two members of their unit, Miller and his men find Ryan defending a vital bridge with a handful of men from the 101st. Miller breaks the news of his brothers' deaths to him and tells him that he has orders to take him home. Ryan is defiant, wishing to stay with his squad because they are "the only brothers I have left." In fact, he does not think he has done anything unusual to "deserve" the reprieve Miller is offering him. Miller reluctantly accepts Ryan's decision and takes command of Ryan's unit, hoping to defend the bridge against the German troops that are already on their way.
Because of his inspired leadership, the bridge over the Merderet River in the fictional village of Ramelle is saved, but Miller and most of his men are killed in the battle. Miller's last words to Ryan -- "earn this"—haunt Ryan for the rest of his life.
The final scene shows an elderly Ryan with his family some 50 years later at Miller's grave in Normandy. Before saluting the grave, an emotional Ryan expresses his hope that Miller will regard the life Ryan has tried to lead as a "good man" as enough to repay the debt he owes Miller and his squad for their sacrifice.
The real "Ryan" was Sgt. Frederick (Fritz) Niland, who, with some other members of the 101st, was inadvertently dropped too far inland. They eventually made their own way back to their unit at Carentan, where the Chaplain, Lt. Col. Father Francis Sampson, told Niland about the death of his three brothers, two at Normandy and one in the Far East.
Under the US War Department's Sole Survivor Policy, brought about following the death of five Sullivan brothers serving on the same ship, Fr. Sampson arranged passage back to Britain and thereafter to his parents, Augusta and Michael Niland, in Tonawanda, New York. There was no behind-the-lines rescue mission, and his mother was not a widow, although it is believed that she did receive all the telegrams at the same time (Ambrose, Stephen E. 'D-Day',Simon & Schuster, 1997). Additionally, the brother believed to be killed in the Far East turned out to have been captured and later returned home. Fr. Francis Sampson wrote about Niland and the story of the 101st, in his 1958 book, Look Out Below123 (ISBN 1877702005).
- Tom Hanks - Captain John H. Miller, a former school teacher from Pennsylvania who keeps his life private from his squad.
- Edward Burns - Private Richard Reiben, from Brooklyn. BAR Gunner.
- Tom Sizemore - Technical Sergeant Michael Horvath, Miller's senior non-commissioned officer.
- Matt Damon - Private James Francis Ryan, Paratrooper Rifleman.
- Jeremy Davies - Corporal Timothy E. Upham—not originally in Miller's company, he is attached to the squad to function as a language translator. Upham is supposed to represent the viewer - exposed to the horror of war for the first time.
- Adam Goldberg - Private Stanley Mellish, a Jewish Rifleman.
- Nathan Fillion - Minnesota Private Ryan, Rifleman mistaken for the real Private Ryan
- Barry Pepper - Private Daniel Jackson, the sniper of Miller's group.
- Giovanni Ribisi - Private Irwin Wade, the T-4 Medic of Miller's.
- Vin Diesel - Private Adrian Caparzo, Rifleman.
- Ted Danson - Captain Fred Hamill, a paratrooper, who saves the lives of Miller's group.
- Paul Giamatti - SSgt. William Hill, a paratrooper with an injured ankle.
- Dennis Farina - Lt. Col. Walter Anderson, Miller's CO
- Harve Presnell - Gen. George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, US Army
- "Picture a girl who took a nosedive from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down." - Private Ryan (Matt Damon)
- "He better be worth it. He better go home and cure a disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb." - Captain Miller (Tom Hanks)
- "This time the mission is a man." - Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore)
- "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die." - Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies)
- "It's like finding a needle in a stack of needles" - Captain Miller (Tom Hanks)
- (add more here...)
Spoilers end here.
- This is one of three Tom Hanks movies, (along with Forrest Gump and Apollo 13) where socks play a role in the plot. The G.I.s use their socks to hold the components of sticky bombs that they improvise in the field.
- Noted Star Trek actor James Doohan, who served with the Royal Canadian Artillery and was wounded at Normandy on D-Day, was one of many veterans who thanked Spielberg for not holding back on the intensely violent scenes of the Normandy landing.
- According to Paul Giamatti in an Entertainment Weekly profile, his management and agents advised him not to take the part in Saving Private Ryan since they felt the part was not big enough. But Giamatti insisted on taking the role.
- Several of the film's younger stars including Edward Burns, Barry Pepper and Giovanni Ribisi as well as Hanks endured several days of grueling "boot camp" training and work on the film set to prepare for their roles. As a result, they all agreed to call it quits and approached Tom Hanks about participating in their stand. But Hanks refused and warned his younger co-stars that they would be making a big mistake if they were to quit the film. They subsequently followed his advice and the film became a smash hit and major awards contender. Also, actor Jeremy Davies, who plays Cpl Upham, was kept out of the "Boot Camp" training so his fellow actors would let their resentment for him shine through their performances.
- This film is one of a rare few that won the Academy Award for Best Director without also winning Best Picture.
- Former general, (later Secretary-of-State), Colin Powell asked Steven Spielberg: "Why didn't the soldiers just blow up the bridge before the battle began, which would have been the intelligent thing to do, (even though it would have gone against their orders)?" Mr. Spielberg's reply was: "That blowing up the bridge at the start of the battle, (with the Allies on the defensive side of the river), would not have been as dramatic as what is shown on film."
- The Thin Red Line, a close contemporary of Spielberg's film, directed by Terrence Malick
- Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, A film that has been dubbed in some circles as "South Korea's answer to Saving Private Ryan." Apart from the brutal battle sequences and modern day bookends, the two films have otherwise little in common.
- Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, a PC game that features an Omaha Beach mission that is comparable to a scene from the film.
- Medal of Honor: Frontline, a multi-platform video game featuring a similar Omaha Beach mission, as well as similar environments and situations to the movie.
- The multi-platform video games Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2 draw heavily from WWII movies such as Saving Private Ryan for their heavily scripted action sequences.
- When Trumpets Fade, a Television film that was almost simultaneously released with Saving Private Ryan. It deals with the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, one of the bloodiest battles fought in World War 2 by western allies. Directed by John Irving
- In French: Film Wiki