Skip to main content

5 Plot Point Breakdown: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

By Keaton Ziem · September 14, 2011

Screenplay Genre: Action / Drama / History

Movie Time: 169 minutes


During the conflict of World War II, at a base in the United States, workers type letters to the parents of lost soldiers. It comes to one worker’s attention that three brothers have all recently been killed in combat and that the mother is soon to receive the three telegrams informing her of this tragedy on the same day. It appears that there is a fourth brother somewhere in Germany, though his exact location is unknown, if he is even still alive. Yet, it is decided by General George C. Marshall (Harve Presnell) that a unit should be sent to find and rescue Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon). (0:34:43)

2. LOCK IN (End of Act One)

Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) is delegated the mission to find Pvt. Ryan from his superior officer. Miller, always one to follow orders and obey protocol, chooses the best among his Unit and recruits a translator before leading them off into the German frontier, still embroiled in the height of war, in search of Pvt. Ryan. (0:40:15)


After stumbling upon a German bunker, it’s argued among the Unit that their objective is to find Pvt. Ryan, not to take unnecessary risks to overtake this bunker, but Cpt. Miller reminds them that their first objective is to win the war. The Unit storms the bunker and successfully overtakes it; though not before losing their T-5 Medic Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). They capture a German soldier and after beating him, a debate ensues whether or not to kill him. In the end, Miller decides to let him go. (1:27:51)

4. MAIN CULMINATION (End of Act Two)

On their march, the Unit takes down a German tank with the help of a second, unidentified Unit. Upon introductions, they find that Pvt. Ryan is one of them. Miller instructs Ryan on their mission, however, it is made clear that the American occupation of the village Ryan and his Unit are holding is pivotal to winning the war, and Ryan refuses to go home until it’s properly secured. Miller decides to stay and help defend the village from a German attack and bring Ryan home afterward. (1:48:57)


The battle rages on until Miller and Ryan’s Units have done their duty to hold the village long enough for reinforcements to arrive, but not until the search for Pvt. Ryan claims one more casualty: Miller himself. Ryan stays at Miller’s side as he dies, long enough to hear Miller’s dying words to Ryan, to “earn it”; words that haunt Ryan even up until the present day. (2:30:35)

For all the latest from The Script Lab, be sure to follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

And become a member of TSL 360 to enjoy the LARGEST screenwriting education content library, featuring masterclasses, deep-dive interviews, and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, TV show-runners, producers, literary managers, agents, studio executives, and leading educators – all in one place.