To commemorate the 235th Independence Day of the United States, I decided to celebrate the films that have done the most to invoke feelings of pride in our country. Patriotism, to me, is not defined within the confines of a partisan philosophy or simplistic nationalism. True patriots are loyal not to an individual or political party, but a set of ideas that have come to define us as a nation. The best films reflect those in exciting ways unique to cinema. It’s not enough for a movie to simply say that it loves America; it has to uphold the principles that make America great to make my list. Its artistic quality apart from that played only a small part in formulating this list, though I should note that (if you make allowances for my #9 pick) the movies are all great in of themselves. So without further delay…
10. 25th Hour
How in the world could a depressing drama about a man going to prison possibly bring out feelings of patriotism? Because, as 9/11 demonstrated, our shared tragedies can unite us just as much as our triumphs. 25th Hour is not directly about that fateful day, but it forms the undercurrent of the entire story and uses Monty’s final day of freedom to reflect New York’s – and really the entire country’s – collective grief. And yet, in its affecting conclusion, Spike Lee also shows us that we as Americans have the strength to face such an unthinkable tragedy, overcome it…and keep going.
9. Fahrenheit 9/11
Before the conservatives among you form an angry mob, I should make it clear that I understand some of your gripes with Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary. Its accuracy is disputable at times, and I was personally disappointed at how he opted for cheap shots instead of something more genuinely inquisitive. However, I am proud to be part of a nation that allows this kind of film to be created. In the wake of Iran’s inhuman sentence imposed on Jafar Panahi, it’s inspiring to know that we fight for the right for artists to call our then-President a war criminal, and invites debate on polemic filmmaking instead of trying to suppress it.
8. Yankee Doodle Dandy
Even more than Patton, the beauty of Yankee Doodle Dandy owes itself almost entirely to a single performance. The film itself is decent enough; a by-the-numbers biopic with implausible flashbacks, historical inaccuracies, etc. But James Cagney, in one of the greatest performances ever to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, personifies the exuberance of the American spirit. In doing so, he uplifts an otherwise passable picture into becoming a stirring anthem to unapologetic patriotism and old-fashioned sentiment. As Cohan himself said best, “Where else in the world could a plain guy like me come and talk things over with the head man?”
7. Team America: World Police
I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one comedy in my top ten. After all, a healthy nation must be able to laugh at itself from time to time. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s outrageously irreverent puppet action flick manages to satirize and embrace American exceptionalism in equal measure. Sure, the team itself is a motley crew of bumbling weirdoes who leave a wake of destruction every time they chase terrorists, but they also come to understand the necessity of our assertiveness in a world of appeasers. Who says “Dicks also fuck assholes” can’t be an inspiring ode to our country?
A multi-layered and fascinating biopic whose meaning depends on the viewer, Patton is either a tribute or an indictment of the titular general’s place in history, played by George C. Scott in his definitive screen performance. I have always believed it to be (in many ways similar to The Hurt Locker) more of an even-handed character study about a unique man who found his calling; about a man who believed wholeheartedly that God put him on this planet to do one thing and one thing only. Others may disagree, but I argue that the film is sympathetic to General Patton and the hard-line military culture as a whole, and I have always found that point of view (perhaps in part due to my career) moving.
5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
One of Frank Capra’s best films, and I don’t give a damn if its wide-eyed sentimentalism annoys some people. If anything, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is more important than ever to our society in an age where moral turpitude in the halls of Congress is accepted as par for the course. Besides, the film is much darker than one might remember; Jefferson Smith’s idealism is greeted with derision and corruption from callous politicians who only think for themselves. True, his final victory is somewhat implausible, but I would not argue that the film is supposed to be an accurate depiction of the Senate. Rather, it is a desperate plea for our leaders to have the honesty and conviction of Smith. If being moved by such a message makes me naïve, so be it.
4. All the President’s Men
Arguably the best film about journalism ever made (give or take The Insider), Alan J. Pakula’s nearly undisputed masterpiece has become the symbol of freedom of the press. Through its white-knuckle rendition of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s exposure of the Watergate cover-up, All the President’s Men shows us not only the heroism of vigilant journalists, but how vital they are to our democracy. In our society, not even the President is immune from justice…as long as there are courageous reporters willing to find the truth.
3. Hoop Dreams
Quick, name the most critically-acclaimed film of 1994! If you said Forrest Gump, Heavenly Creatures, Pulp Fiction, or The Shawshank Redemption, you’d be wrong. It turns out a documentary about two inner-city youths who pursue their dream of going to college on a basketball scholarship captured the hearts of critics that year, and it’s easy to see why. True, the film exposes several problems in American society that form the myriad obstacles facing their goal (mainly in education and institutional racism), but the perseverance and eventual success of William Gates and Arthur Agee is a paean to the power of the American Dream like no other.
2. The Right Stuff
Other lists of patriotic films have frequently cited Apollo 13, but for a rousing, space-faring celebration of the American spirit, I would argue that Philip Kaufman’s 1983 epic is even better. Of course, the very saga of the Space Race is extraordinary in of itself, but Kaufman’s chronicle turns it into a joyous epic that tears down the “mythology” of the creation of the space program while in its own way portraying it in an even more inspiring light. The film also presents a sobering contrast between the old-fashioned rugged individualism of Chuck Yeager with the technologically evolved march of progress represented by the Mercury astronauts in the story of one of America’s greatest conquests.
1. The People vs. Larry Flynt
Not a conventional choice for #1, I’ll admit, but I honestly could not think of another movie that so eloquently championed the American right I value most – the freedom of speech. Even more inspiring was the film’s hero for that right: the sleazy, white trash porn mogul Larry Flynt of Hustler. As the film chronicles the rise of his business, he gains an army of enemies from the “Moral Majority” who fight to shut him down. Those for tyrannical “purity” and those for freedom of decadence represent the duality of Miloš Forman’s outstanding biopic, and it is one that is dishearteningly misunderstood by many in this country. Freedom too often is believed to only apply to popular speech, when in fact it is precisely the most distasteful expressions that the First Amendment was created to protect. Hearing Edward Norton’s reading of the Supreme Court’s (unanimous!) decision upholding that argument never fails to remind me that, despite its occasional flaws, we do live in the greatest country in the world.
“Patriotism,” of course, can mean a variety of things these days depending on who you ask. Tell me which films have stirred you the most as an American in the comments!