Happy birthday! As you enter yet another year of being the greatest country in the history of the universe, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a part of your citizenry. After all, a lot has happened in the time spanning from that muggy summer of 1776, when a collection of scrappy rabble-rousers declared our freedom from British oppression, all the way up to last week, when all that awesome freedom was squandered by our government’s hateful declaration that children and poor people deserve health care.
Your citizens have prided themselves on being part of a country that celebrates numerous heritages and countless identities. You are also a country that struggles with those sometimes contradictory identities but, to paraphrase what a character said in Aaron Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom, you are “a country that’s always said we could do better.” For an American like me, grappling with that very struggle is a civic imperative, and it is what I am most content to celebrate every July 4.
In honor of the day you declared your independence, I thought I would celebrate, in my own wholly inadequate way, by naming the movies from the past century or so that I feel exemplify, at least in part, the struggles your people have been dealing with from the very beginning.
Of course, I am hoping my readers will name movies I am bound to miss. For example, my cinematic blind spots preclude me from including movies featuring indigenous and Native Americans, as well as classics like All the President’s Men, All the President’s Men and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Other movies, like In America, The Manchurian Candidate and Dr. Strangelove, are ones I’ve not seen recently enough to praise all that coherently. Otherwise, I tried to be as well-rounded as possible.
So let’s get started…
Film Misery’s Required Movie Viewing for an American Patriot
If there is any director whose entire filmography warrants placement on a Civics 101 syllabus, then surely it is the late and great 5-time Oscar winner. His movies cover a multitude of issues, whether it be the fallibility of our justice system (12 Angry Men), the struggle against corruption (Serpico), the awesomely populist power of desperation (Dog Day Afternoon) or the awesomely destructive power of cynicism (Network). Each of his movies is quite different, yet they have a common denominator in their righteous quest to correct the deficiencies both within ourselves and the workings of a society meant to protect all of us. The Lumet film is as quintessentially American as baseball, apple pie and John Wayne.
Of course, this one could rightly make its way onto almost any list, what with it being the “Greatest Movie of All Time.” But don’t let the prestige and technical influence of this Orson Welles masterpiece fool you; the reason Ciizen Kane endures as a great narrative work is in how it explores the compromising relationship between ambition and our more human connections. It’s a story that’s been told in countless other great American films, from The Godfather to There Will Be Blood to The Social Network. Yet Kane overshadows them all.
Perhaps because it is how we earned our independence, Americans have a truly bizarre relationship with war. We claim to hate it and we oftentimes declare a necessary evil. Yet we are a culture addicted to it, even today. Michael Cimino’s Vietnam epic is one of my favorite films, in part because it explores the war’s dire consequences for all – be it for the soldiers who don’t make it back, for the scarred survivors who have to move on, or for the civilians left to cope with the way war has irrevocably changed those they love. The very final scene – a collective rendition of “God Bless America” – is at once genuinely sentimental yet grimly ironic. It’s a fitting salute to what war means for us all.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Racism is perhaps the ugliest, most difficult conversation we have ever had to face as Americans. Movies like Crash, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Blind Side are all part of a more popular type of dialog on race – one affirming that racism is indeed bad, yet they don’t really aim to take privileged folks out of their comfort zones. Spike Lee’s once-controversial 1989 masterpiece couldn’t care less about your comfort as a person of privilege. It is an angry, provocative and truthful film that meaningfully explores what it is like to be a person of color in America, and how we are systemically more likely to favor some groups of people over others. It’s no surprise that some white critics at the time worried it might incite a “race war,” and even less a surprise the movie was snubbed at the Oscars that same year in favor of a much “safer” film, Driving Miss Daisy.
When it comes to immigration and the American Dream, few movies can really match The Godfather: Part II’s blend of hopeless romanticism and cool cynicism. After all, the entire conceit of its tangoing father-and-son plotlines really serves to typify the notion that America is the “Land of Opportunity.” We see the father, Vito, finding asylum in America and building an empire that one day his son might inherit. But the son, Michael, demonstrates what happens once that fully-realized dream is fueled no longer by a desire to emerge from nothingness, but by a hollow sense of nepotism and self-desire. Yes, The Godfather can be a deeply romantic account of the immigrant’s experience, but it is also a jaded portrait of the anemic nature of that immigrant’s dream.
To this day, Edward R. Murrow remains the sterling symbol of journalism’s core function. This sophomore feature from director George Clooney is as quixotic a love-letter to Murrow’s integrity as there could possibly be. Clooney, whose own father was a TV journalist, elevates the film’s tension in its impeccable reconstruction of the day-to-day operations of McCarthy-era TV journalism, but it is in the enigmatic performance of David Straithairn as Murrow that we are meant to see what accountability the media can – and should – can lend to political discourse.
Speaking of McCarthyism, the film that gave Gary Cooper the second of his two Oscars also happens to be quite the sly allegory for that era, righteously admonishing the majority that stays silent in the midst of impending danger and injustice. John Wayne, inspired to star in Howard Hawkes’ Rio Bravo in response, went so far once as to call High Noon “the most un-American thing” he had ever seen in his life. Blacklist me if you like, Duke, but the film’s celebration of an individual standing alone in the name of justice strikes me as a celebration of a quintessentially American virtue. Most importantly, High Noon also happens to be a damn good movie Western.
Like The Godfather: Part II, Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of the James M. Cain novel is a complex exploration of the rags-to-riches experience and what happens to the American Dream when its direct beneficiary refuses to acknowledge her parent’s labors. Propelled by Joan Crawford’s dedicated performance, Mildred Pierce is a compelling story about the thankless – and sometimes senseless – sacrifices a mother makes for her loved ones, even if it is at the expense of our personal successes and achievements.
“I hate what you say, but I will defend do the death your right to say it,” is the ultimate mantra for a First Amendment absolutist. In turn, Milos Forman’s film about the scummy editor of Hustler magazine’s legal feud with the equally gross Jerry Fallwell is a love letter to that kind of absolutism. But it also serves as a smart and well-conceived dialog starter on how our Constitution is supposed to protect our “inalienable rights,” and how even that right’s most odious practitioners are entitled to its protection.
Americans always talk about “freedom of expression,” and the truth is that sexuality is itself a form of personal and political expression in a broad, Foucauldian sense. John Cameron Mitchell’s underrated film is most noteworthy, perhaps unfairly, for its on-camera depiction of unsimulated sex acts between folks of all kinds of sexual and gender identities. Less discussed, however, is the relationship between those sex acts being depicted and the characters’ feelings of personal insecurity and emotional strife in a post-9/11 New York City. All that notwithstanding, however, any movie that dares to give a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” in the way that this one does deserves praise as one of the most indisputably patriotic films of recent memory.
Lest you accuse my list of simply offering up one bleeding-heart, namby-pamby, weak-kneed liberal title after another, I give you Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s brilliant, side-splittingly nihilistic and un-PC commentary on our generation’s War on Terror. It’s difficult to know what exactly the point is to Team America; even its climactic, elegantly recited soliloquy, which compares America’s role as a citizen of the world to numerous orifices and organs on the human body, seems frustratingly conciliatory. But perhaps the point here is simply to skewer as much perceived hypocrisy as possible, be it the sanctimonious Hollywood blow-hards on the left or the violently jingoist and right-wing Bruckheimer movies those same Hollywood elites get paid making. Team America outrages with adroit swagger. Not one Fourth of July goes by without the phrase “America, Fuck Yeah!” making an appearance on my Twitter and/or Facebook feeds.
We always think of the September 11 terrorist attacks as a collective experience, the moment where an entire nation – for a while, at least – united in stalwart solidarity as a single community. But we also all reacted to that day in disparate ways, be it shock, anger, or even ambivalence. Paul Greengrass’ unsentimental, real-time account of passengers sacrificing their own lives to save others is a wisely-conceived film. It does not exploit the collective anguish experienced that day, yet it still serves as means of sobering our deeply personal relationship to that tragedy from what actually transpired. It’s a story of the heroism of others, but perhaps the cinema’s most invaluable time-capsule of that culture-defining event.