In 2014, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." On the morning of June 6, 1944, American soldiers land on Omaha Beach as part of the Normandy Invasion. War Department, General George Marshall learns that three of the four brothers of the Ryan family were killed in action and that the fourth son, James, is missing in action in Normandy.

They suffer heavy losses in assaulting German positions defended by artillery and machine guns. Miller of the 2nd Ranger Battalion assembles a group to penetrate the German defenses, leading to a breakout from the beach. After reading Abraham Lincoln's Bixby letter aloud for his staff, he orders that James Ryan be found and returned home immediately.

Elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division arrive with infantry and armor.

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He then asks his wife if he is a "good man" worthy of their sacrifices, to which she tells him he is.

Ryan comes to attention and salutes Miller's grave.

The film is loosely based on the World War II life stories of the Niland brothers. In casting the film Spielberg sought to create a cast that "looked" the part, stating in an interview, "You know, the people in World War II actually looked different than people look today", adding to this end that he cast partly based on wanting the cast "to match the faces I saw on the newsreels." Before filming began, several of the film's stars, including Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, and Tom Hanks, endured ten days of "boot camp" training led by Marine veteran Dale Dye and Warriors, Inc., a California-based company that specializes in training actors for realistic military portrayals.

Spielberg had stated that his main intention in forcing the actors to go through the boot camp was not to learn the proper techniques but rather "because I wanted them to respect what it was like to be a soldier." The film's second scene is a 20 minute sequence recounting the landing on the beaches of Normandy.

They locate a Private James Ryan, but quickly learn he is not their man.

They eventually encounter a friend of James Ryan, who tells them that he is defending an important bridge in the town of Ramelle.

Spielberg chose to include this particularly violent sequence in order "to bring the audience onto the stage with me" specifically noting that he did not want the "audience to be spectators" but rather he wanted to "demand them to be participants with those kids who had never seen combat before in real life, and get to the top of Omaha Beach together." Spielberg had already demonstrated his interest in World War II themes with the films 1941, Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, and the Indiana Jones series.

Spielberg later co-produced the World War II themed television miniseries Band of Brothers and its counterpart The Pacific with Tom Hanks.

On the way to Ramelle, Miller decides to neutralize a German machine gun position, despite his men's misgivings; Wade is killed in the skirmish.

Miller, at Upham's urging, declines to execute a surviving German (nicknamed "Steamboat Willie") and sets him free on the condition that he surrender to the first Allied unit he encounters.

The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards; Spielberg's direction won his second Academy Award for Best Director, with four more awards going to the film.