The Fourth of July weekend is upon us, and it would seem appropriate to celebrate the birthday of the nation with a bit of America-lovin’ cinema. However, these films are not exactly known for their subtlety; the line between patriotism and jingoism is a fine one, and if you’re not careful, you may find yourself suffering through flag-waving pap like Independence Day and The Patriot. We like our Fourth of July cinema a little more perceptive than that; America is a complicated notion, an idea as much as a place, constantly redefining itself and expanding its own borders and definitions. Here are a few films that acknowledge that complexity, and find their drama within it.
Throughout his long and fascinating career, Robert Altman frequently explored the theme of the American identity — who we are, how we think of ourselves, and the tension between those two notions. Nowhere did he do so more explicitly than in his 1975 masterpiece Nashville, released on the eve of the American bicentennial (it opens with the recording of a patriotic anthem called “200 Years” — “We must be doin’ somethin’ right to last 200 years!”). Using the music capital as a microcosm for the country, Altman assembles a large, unruly cast of unforgettable (and indisputably American) characters and caricatures, rotates between them, combines and disrupts them, and then assembles all for a climactic event that is as devastating as it is seemingly inevitable. Nashville’s power lies not in that event, though; it is in the aftermath, as country icon Haven Hamilton grabs a microphone and implores the crowd, “This is Nashville! You show ‘em what we’re made of,” and leads a sing-along of “It Don’t Worry Me” — as good a choice for an alternate national anthem as any.
It’s an easy choice, sure, but as with the best of Frank Capra’s movies, Mr. Smith is far from the dutifully simple-minded affair that its reputation might imply. We’ve all seen the clips of Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith filibustering on the floor of the Senate, his passion and exhaustion a testament to the American spirit, but those clips are usually free of their important context: that Smith is fighting for his political life, knowing that when his speech ends, the floor will take a vote to expel him on trumped-up corruption charges — the result of his refusal to play along with the graft and malfeasance that controls the legislative body. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is moving and inspirational, but it’s also a dark, tough little mother of a movie, an unflinching look at a political system that has only grown more crooked and foul in the decades since its release.
On his hit television series The West Wing, writer Aaron Sorkin often walked the precarious tightrope between the nuts-and-bolts of how business is done in Washington, and the Capraesque idealism of how it could and should be. He first explored that balance in his screenplay to the 1995 Rob Reiner film The American President, something of a dry run for The West Wing (with his president-to-be, Martin Sheen, in the John Spencer role). Sorkin is an unapologetic liberal, and writes from that ideological viewpoint, so ultra-conservative viewers tuned out — but in choosing a side (instead of writing from the mushy middle so common in political cinema), Sorkin is able (subtly here, more explicitly later) to explore the co-opting of the notion of “patriotism” as a right-wing value. He did so most memorably in the film’s Mr. Smith-esque climax (above), which finds the increasingly center-drifting President (insert Clinton comparison here) reclaiming, proudly, his liberal values.
Oliver Stone’s 1989 film certainly has the most patriotic title on the list, lifted from the lyrics of George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” (featured in another Fourth of July mainstay, Yankee Doodle Dandy). The film, however, is decidedly more complicated. It is the true story of Ron Kovic, an idealistic young patriot who joins the Marine Corps and fights in Vietnam, where he is involved in a horrifying friendly-fire incident and is later paralyzed from mid-torso down in a brutal firefight. His recovery is rocky, littered with hopelessness and abuse, before Ron finds purpose and direction as a key force in the anti-war movement. Born on the Fourth of July is not a sentimental film — it looks unblinkingly at the travesty of the Vietnam conflict, and at the country’s treatment of its veterans (from both the left and the right). But it also highlights a vital facet of the American experience: the freedom to speak out against government injustice, whether from the lectern and the page (as Kovic did) or from celluloid (as Stone did).
Michael Cimino’s powerful, visceral 1978 Academy Award-winner also cast a less-than-reverent eye on the Vietnam conflict, dealing with a group of working-class Pennsylvania men who are torn, in various ways, by the war and its aftermath. One of its most controversial scenes was its 1974 epilogue (here), in which a post-funeral barroom gathering of the central characters results in a spontaneous sing-along of “God Bless America.” Writing about the film for Vanity Fair in 2008, Peter Biskind addressed the key question of the sequence: “Was it meant ironically or not, as a critique of patriotism or a paean to it?” The more tantalizing possibility, of course, is that it is not an either/or choice — that the scene is both, simultaneously.
The iconography of America’s founding is so thick and ingrained that we tend to think of our Founding Fathers as idols, symbols, even gods, elevated figures on a Wikipedia page waiting to be edited by Bachmann supporters. Tom Hooper’s epic seven-part 2008 mini-series, based on David McCullough’s bestselling biography, sought to make such figures as Adams, Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton into real, flesh-and-blood human beings — intelligent, idealistic, and forward-thinking, yes, but also flawed figures capable of pettiness and even outright hypocrisy. These refined and nuanced portraits don’t serve to undermine or deflate the series’ mythologized figures; if anything, in seeing them as imperfect and conflicted, their accomplishments are made all the more heroic.
Edward Zwick’s masterful 1989 war drama is the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black unit to fight in the Civil War. The film’s ostensible focus is Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the white officer who leads the regiment, but our attention is drawn to the infantrymen (including Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher) drawn to fight for a country that treated them, at best, as second-class citizens. Its moving climax, the suicidal first-line assault on Fort Wagner, is a stunning illustration of an astonishingly patriotic act: shared sacrifice for an ideal that was not yet a reality.
Okay, there’s nothing terribly subtle about a movie that opens with a giant, wide-screen-filling shot of Old Glory. But Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1970 biopic of general George S. Patton is far more nuanced than the World War II epics that preceded it — as played by George C. Scott (in a performance he won, but did not accept, the Oscar for), Patton is brave and brilliant, and also brutal and unsympathetic. (The script was by Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola, whose work on it helped land the Godfather gig.) It is a multi-layered approach typical of the period in which it was made. “The Patton shown here appears to be deliberately planned as a Rorschach test,” Pauline Kael wrote of the film. “He is what people who believe in military values can see as a true military hero — the red-blooded American who loves to fight and whose crude talk is straight talk. He is also what people who despise militarism see as the worst kind of red-blooded American mystical maniac who believes in fighting; for them, Patton can be the symbolic proof of the madness of the whole military complex.” Kael saw the film’s choice to “play him both ways” as a flaw, indicative of an absence of perspective on the man. But that’s actually Patton’s best quality — it understands and conveys the duality of American militarism, and allows the viewer to see both positions with equal eloquence.
The first image of Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic is the same as Patton’s — a bold, bright American flag filling the screen. And then that flag burns down to the shape of an X, an image sure to send a traditional, conservative “patriot” fleeing from the vicinity. But Lee’s epic, three-hour picture is a powerful and inspiring portrayal of an American journey, from poverty to crime to nationalism to spiritual enlightenment. It is, as its subject was, critical of American history and culture, but is also a potent and often thrilling account of an angry young man who became a part of that history, and changed it.
We’ll talk a lot in this country about freedom of speech, and freedom of choice, and freedom of the press, but seldom have the questions raised by those fundamental concepts been as actively engaged as in the battle between Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and television journalist Edward R. Murrow — and in George Clooney’s wonderful 2005 film about that battle, Good Night, and Good Luck. “We are not descended from fearful men,” Murrow (played beautifully by David Straithairn) reminds us, in one of the film’s finest and most exalting speeches. “Not from men who feared to write, to associate, to speak, to associate and to defend the causes that were for the moment unpopular… We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world; but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” On this anniversary of our nation’s founding, that notion — celebrating our greatness, while acknowledging the constant struggle to maintain and honor that greatness — is (to this writer’s eyes, anyway) what true patriotism is really all about.