We come together as Americans on the Fourth of July, the official salute to our nation’s Declaration of Independence in 1776.
U.S. citizens are divided, to put it mildly, on a dozen or so issues like abortion rights, gun rights, climate change, the Jan. 6h congressional investigation and more.
But we try to downplay our differences on Independence Day weekend. And we come together when our nation is threatened by another nation. In many ways, this is a universal form of tribalism.
That is why most of Colorado was thrilled last month when our Avalanche hockey team fought their way to the Stanley Cup championship. (No matter that most of “our” players were from other countries and not one a Coloradan.)
Hollywood makes a lot of movies critical of Wall Street, politicians, racism in America and other injustices. Yet filmmakers have also produced a score of movies encouraging the USA, USA, USA spirit.
What brings us together? Forrest Gump, Sen. Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart), Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Chuck Yeager and John Glenn, Sgt. Alvin C. York, Pvt. James Ryan, the soldier heroes of D-Day, Iwo Jima, the U.S. hockey team playing in the Miracle on Ice, Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” war-information films, American sniper Chris Kyle, and Captain America.
Also the three celebrated female African American NASA mathematicians in the film “Hidden Figures” and CIA intelligence analyst Maya Harris portrayed by Jessica Chastain in the controversial “Zero Dark Thirty.”
We know that Americans came together after nation-threatening events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
What follows is a suggested Fourth of July Festival of Films. Many are classics, but some were not box office successes.
‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ — 1939
Legendary film director Frank Capra gave us a civics class. Actor Jimmy Stewart portrayed a novice U.S. senator from the Midwest who refuses to compromise his ethics and patriotic ideals in the face of a corrupt political boss back in his home state and spineless U.S. senators who have been bought off.
Evil looks triumphant, but the innocent new good guy becomes our hero by outwitting the bosses and professional politicians. “Great principles don’t get lost …” They’re all right here, as he reads The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to his fellow senators.
This is a film that may be highly critical of regular politics yet it cheers on the citizen public-minded volunteers who can patriotically stand up and prevail against the “rotten apples” in our government.
‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ — 1942
This was a hit musical that celebrates famed Broadway actor and producer George M. Cohan. But its music and theme supported our troops, our flag, and the importance of winning World War II. Songs like “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy” kindled the patriotic spirit soon after the shocking Pearl Harbor attack.
‘Casablanca’ — 1942
Director Michael Curtiz had also directed “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” His film “Casablanca” is more complicated and often requires two or three viewings, but it has become one of the most praised American-made films.
It takes place briefly in Paris and primarily in the North African seaport city of Casablanca. Rick’s American-style bar and cafe are swarming with French Vichy regime soldiers, German officials, and refugees from all over Europe.
Previously, the United States had been neutral about taking sides in World War II. But people now have to make choices, and that includes cafe owner Rick Blaine, an American played by Humphrey Bogart. This movie suggests he puts his allegiance to America over a romance with a woman he has loved, played by Ingrid Bergman. He willingly aids and abets refugees who are yearning to escape the Nazis and go to America, the land of freedom. U.S. military officials love this message.
‘Forrest Gump’ — 1994
Not much needs to be said about this heartwarming Tom Hanks classic.
No one expects much from this sickly, bullied, low-IQ underdog. But with great mentoring from his mom, played by Sally Fields, our hero Forrest, played by Hanks, beats all expectations. He leads an All-American life as a football star, loyal Vietnam Army buddy, international ping pong competitor, highly successful capitalist, and generous philanthropist.
He also famously runs across the country a few times. Go, Forrest.
‘Gettysburg’ — 1993
July 1-3, 1863, were one of the bloodiest and most consequential battles of the Civil War. Novelist Michael Shaara wrote a historical novel called “Killer Angels” about this Gettysburg battle. His novel deserves to be read. It provides a great case study of Confederate officers Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and Union officers such as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, played in the film by Jeff Daniels.
Chamberlain’s pep talks to his fellow Maine volunteers are worth the price of admission to both the novel and the movie. “Why are we fighting? We are fighting to set other men free. … It isn’t the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value.”
‘Glory’ — 1989
This movie tells the little-remembered story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first African American unit raised, trained, and deployed in the Civil War. They fought with valor in Georgia and South Carolina. They persuaded Lincoln to recruit thousands more African Americans to join Union forces. This may have made a huge difference in the winning of the Civil War by the North.
‘Lincoln’ — 2012
This film focuses on the last few months of Lincoln’s life in late 1864 and early 1865. He was determined to help enact the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would outlaw slavery throughout the United States. The film is, in a sense, a case study.
But producer-director Steven Spielberg and British actor Daniel Day-Lewis give us the best film ever made about an American president. Lincoln gets the “Great Man” treatment here. Some critics rightly say the movie exaggerates Lincoln’s actual contribution and woefully neglects the role of many others. These critics are mostly right, but this is still a splendid movie. It captures both idealistic and realistic characteristics of a president who set the highest standards of character and patriotism.
Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for portraying Lincoln so warmly and competently.
‘Sergeant York’ — 1941
Gary Cooper portrays Sgt. Alvin C. York, one of the great heroes of World War I. He was a Tennessee hayseed who was reluctant to serve in the military for religious reasons.
But when the time came, he famously fought against German soldiers and forced some 75 Germans to surrender to him.
York did not want to be there. He didn’t want to be a hero. He was embarrassed by all of his medals and decorations. He simply wanted to go home. But no one has ever questioned his special brand of patriotism.
‘Patton’ — 1970
Gen. George S. Patton, a West Point graduate and an Olympic Games (1912) competitor, was one of the most complicated, paradoxical and effective fighting generals in World War II.
His military philosophy was to attack, keep attacking, and, after you have done that, keep on attacking some more. He told his men: “No dumb bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
‘Flags of Our Fathers’ — 2006
Producer-director Clint Eastwood honors those who fought and died in the Pacific Theater in World War II. He gives us a more complicated version than the official version of what took place on and after the U.S. invasion of the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ — 1998
Another Steven Spielberg masterpiece and another Tom Hanks winning performance. It’s all about the D-Day invasion of Normandy in France during World War II and a special dangerous mission to rescue a private, James Ryan. He had parachuted into France behind German enemy lines.
This film, along with the film “The Longest Day,” gives you an unvarnished view of the realities and brutalities of war. It’s a patriotic ode to those who fight and sacrifice for their country.
‘Why We Fight’ — 1942 to 1945
Director Frank Capra, an immigrant from Sicily, volunteered in both World War I and World War II. At the start of World War II, he was asked by Gen. George Marshall to make “war information” films for troops being trained for deployment in Europe.
The films were effective morale builders and patriotic as well. U.S. President Franklin D Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill loved them. They were subsequently viewed by civilians as well as military troops.
Few of us nowadays would view these propaganda films as entertaining. They are not as cinematically gripping as the Nazi German made “Triumph of the Will.” But they did their job.
‘Rambo First Blood II’ — 1985
Sylvester Stallone gave us a series of Rambo movies. This one has John Rambo returning to Vietnam in search of prisoners of war. He is a patriot’s patriot, and he is on a mission to get Americans to love their soldiers as much as their soldiers love America.
‘American Sniper ‘— 2015
This is another of Clint Eastwood’s films intended to celebrate soldiers. In this case, it is a Navy SEAL sharpshooter who earned the nickname “The Legend.” Based on a memoir by retired sniper Chris Kyle, portrayed in the movie by Bradley Cooper, the film documents how Kyle picked off scores of Iraqi snipers trying to kill American soldiers.
Kyle turns out to be a complicated and troubled individual, but he is the type of colleague you would clearly cherish if you were under attack on a battlefield.
‘Red Dawn’ — 1984
This low-budget film became a cult classic. It tells about a band of young people in a small rural Colorado town who seize some local guns and prepare to fight an unexpected invasion of Communist-supporting troops. They designate themselves the Minutemen of their generation. This may not be a great film, but viewers came to admire these teenage patriots who stood up against those who would torpedo the American experiment in freedom and democracy.
‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ — 2011
The protagonist here is like a young Forrest Gump. The U.S. Army turns him down as unfit for military service. Thanks to a medical experiment, however, Steve Rogers is transformed and is soon liberating U.S. troops trapped behind enemy lines. He then almost singlehandedly destroys a German-style Manhattan Project aimed at developing nuclear and hydrogen weapons. This is a thriller, and it gives us a heavy dose of nationalism, patriotism, and that old “Go USA” spirit.
‘Zero Dark Thirty’ — 2012
This film was advertised as telling the story of the “greatest manhunt in history.” It tells part of the story of how the U.S. tracked down Osama bin Laden, who was hiding out in Pakistan. Bin Laden was the architect of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon.
This movie was a box office success but very hard to watch, especially the scenes of “enhanced interrogation,” also often called torture techniques.
Our hero here is Maya Harris, a CIA analyst who is charged with tracking down leads that will help find bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays a relentless Maya, who badgers her colleagues and the CIA hierarchy almost as relentlessly as she oversees the torture of possible informants.
People across the political spectrum criticized this movie. especially U.S. Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
‘The Right Stuff’ — 1983, and ‘Hidden Figures’ — 2016
These two films celebrate astronauts, fighter pilots and some of the NASA math and computer scientists who provided the calculations that made John Glenn’s historic trip around the planet in an early spaceship possible.
“The Right Stuff” film was based on a best-selling novel by Tom Wolfe. He did not like the movie. Nor did several of the astronauts. They believed there were too many errors and misleading parts. The film, however, certainly gave us heroes who served their country with notable patriotism. The John Glenn story is especially admired.
“Hidden Figures” was a box-office success and tells the fascinating story of three African American women who had to break racial and gender barriers to serve their country during crucial periods of our space race with Russia. It is an eye-opening film that is both haunting and spirited. The film is based on a book by the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly. The film takes some liberties with the book’s narration and exaggerates the roles of some of the historical figures.
But it was an award-winning film and gives an example of patriotic service by people who did not become celebrities yet who deserved to be.
‘Top Gun’ — 1986, and ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ — 2022
Actor Tom Cruise is a cocky young fighter pilot in these crowd- pleasing action films.
In “Top Gun” (1986), Cruise plays Pete Mitchell, whose military call name is Maverick. He lives up to the name and is both a great pilot and a general wise guy whose motto seems to be: “Rules are for losers.”
He is a speed fanatic, but he shoots down an enemy MiG jet fighter. He also has an attractive female astrophysicist as one of his superior officers. They fall in love. Fans loved the film, and U.S. Navy recruiters viewed it as one of the best military recruiting films of all time.
Thirty-six years later, we get a sequel in “Top Gun: Maverick.” Cruise has become a professional fighter plane test pilot, but his character, lifestyle and cockiness have prevented his being promoted in the military.
He is surprised to be recalled to his old jet fighter pilot training school near San Diego. They want him to teach new and young pilots his skills. His reputation for thrill seeking precedes him, and most of the new students are deeply skeptical if not outright hostile to him.
Maverick thus concentrates and works doubly hard to earn the new pilot students’ respect. His trainees get a special emergency assignment to explode an uranium enrichment project in an unnamed country that resembles someplace like Iran.
Many of the top Navy brass think such a mission is too dangerous, but Capt. Mitchell is undeterred and proves a fearless patriot.
Enjoy your Fourth of July and enjoy these films.