After many harrowing war scenes, Ryan (Matt Damon) is eventually located guarding a bridge critical to a German offensive. Hanks and his men join Ryan's makeshift unit in a virtually suicidal effort to stop the Germans.
How others will see it. Saving Private Ryan was an enormous box office smash, with a worldwide gross of nearly 500M. It was critically acclaimed, gathering 11 Oscar nominations including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Spielberg's won his second Best Director trophy, but Best Picture instead somehow went to Shakespeare in Love.
Today at imdb.com, Saving Private Ryan has over 1M user votes and an extremely high user rating of 8.6 out of 10. Males under 18 grade it highest (8.9) while women over 45 grade it lowest (a nonetheless lofty 8.1). The typical user review gushes "The Greatest War Movie Ever Made".
How I felt about it. The framing device, the elderly Private Ryan at Arlington National Cemetary, is ineffective: his family shows a mix of solemnity, concern, and self-satisfaction. Jeremy Davies becomes an unlikely last-minute hero. Both Davis and Tom Hanks know Ralph Waldo Emerson. One soldier points a rifle at another, and threatens to shoot him, over the fate of a prisoner of war. Another scene has a number of American and German soldiers pointing rifles at each other and screaming. Just fire already.
The rest of the movie is undeniably good. The war scenes are impressive in their scale, and harrowing in their telling. Perhaps there is too much blood, and too much heroism, but U.S. combat deaths during World War II approached 300K, which in turn was only a fraction of the spectacular number of Russian casualties.
Structurally, the movie reminds me of The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), which also has a journalist character, a sniper that must be taken out, an obsession with a phonographic record, and a seemingly immortal heroic leading man that goes down in the final reel. The cliché of a last stand against a vastly superior force saved by the arrival of bomber planes is taken from many films, e.g. Battleground (1949).
In 1998, though, the talk in Hollywood was the similarity between Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, both grisly World War II films. The former had a much bigger box office and won more Oscars (five versus zero), but the latter was more challenging, and is in fact one of the greatest movies ever made.
Saving Private Ryan can't attain that virtually unobtainable level, though director Spielberg did come very close earlier with Schindler's List. The key to the present movie is the lead casting of beloved ever-humble Hollywood icon Tom Hanks, long since forgiven for The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Man With One Red Shoe.