The Fourth of July marks the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and hence the birth of America. That initially meant freedom from tyranny and the opportunity to govern ourselves, but it also came to mean everything from hot dogs and fireworks and summer days to the actual American Dream itself—the ability to better ourselves, become whatever we want, and perhaps make the world a better place for those that come after us. This selection of movies celebrates all aspects of America, from an appreciation of all that it is, to our freedom to criticize its flaws in the hopes of improving. Happy Fourth!
All the President’s Men
One could argue that this is a very un-patriotic movie, in that two journalists work to take down the President of the United States. Or, one could argue that it’s a very patriotic movie, wherein two journalists use powers given to them by the Founding Fathers to maintain justice and a sense of right. All the President’s Men (1976) begins when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are assigned to cover a break-in at the Watergate building, the headquarters for the Democratic National Committee, which led all the way up to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August of 1974.
Written by William Goldman and directed by Alan J. Pakula, this is one of the great journalism movies, depicting the many hours spent on the phone, taking notes, speaking to sources, tracking down leads, and finding that ever-elusive second source to confirm a fact. The great cinematography by Gordon Willis frames the characters in emotionally resonant spaces, such as the newspaper offices, divided by huge columns, as well as the infamous parking garage where the meetings with “Deep Throat” took place. Jason Robards is superb, and won an Oscar, as Post editor Ben Bradlee.
The Big Red One
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The great newspaperman and soldier-turned-filmmaker Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) waited years to be able to make this superb movie about his experiences during WWII. Lee Marvin has one of his greatest roles as the grizzled veteran, leading a platoon of greenhorns through strange and devastating adventures, told in various, disconnected little stories. Fuller doesn’t bother to explain or apologize or deliver any sermons; he just tells the stories as is, showing both the beauty and sadness of war.
Mark Hamill (in The Empire Strikes Back the same year) plays one of the young privates, accompanied by Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward, and Robert Carradine as a writer, presumably based on Fuller himself. Sadly, the studio chopped up Fuller’s final cut and released a 113-minute version, and despite a masterful 163-minute restoration that came out in 2004, the digital version available today on all platforms is still the shorter, 113-minute one. Regardless, the shortened version is still very much worth seeing, highlighting an American original at his best.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Highly irreverent but still screamingly funny, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat—subtitled Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — (2006) celebrates everything both great and embarrassing about America. With cheerful cluelessness, Kazakhstanian TV personality Borat comes to the United States to make a documentary about the Greatest Country in the World. Instead, he sees an episode of Baywatch, falls in love with Pamela Anderson, and begins a cross-country road trip to find her.
Along the way, he interviews many folks and manages to offend just about everyone, crossing a line into racial, sexual, religious, and cultural taboos. Yet, his shock value also somehow sheds light on his own absurd behavior, and, presumably, the behavior of anyone else that discriminates against anyone and anything different than themselves; it’s a blunt approach, but highly effective, and seriously hilarious. A highlight that we can never un-see is a naked fight and chase through a hotel lobby between Borat and his producer producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian).
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One of Martin Scorsese’s only attempts at pure genre filmmaking, Cape Fear (1991), is all about style, the visual and aural creation of suspense, and very little to do with reality. You just have to sit back and go with its edgy insanity. Remaking the 1962 film, Scorsese cast the original stars, Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, in small roles and had composer Elmer Bernstein re-create the famous, sinister score by Bernard Herrmann.
Nick Nolte plays Sam Bowden, a lawyer who may not have done his best to defend the intimidating Max Cady (Robert De Niro) against a rape and brutality charge some 13 years earlier. Now the cunning, heavily tattooed Cady is out, and has vowed revenge on Sam and his family. Even though the movie was dismissed as a “mere” suspense film with no real weight, De Niro received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and Juliette Lewis earned one as well for her astoundingly potent supporting performance as the teen daughter. A scene takes place on the Fourth of July, complete with fireworks!
Captain America: The First Avenger
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It’s tough to go wrong with everyone’s favorite star-spangled superhero. Played by Chris Evans, he has now appeared in seven films, but this origin story set during WWII is the most appropriate for holiday viewing. Scrawny Steve Rogers wants nothing more than to serve his country, but he’s too frail and is rejected. A scientist (Stanley Tucci) offers to perform a “super-soldier” experiment on him, and he’s given new muscles and super-speed. He starts by becoming a kind of troop-supporting entertainer, until he learns that his best pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan) has gone missing and uses his powers to find him, and, eventually, to stop the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
Director Joe Johnston was previously a visual effects man, winning an Oscar for Raiders of the Lost Ark; that movie’s design and energy seem to have been a huge inspiration on Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Everything looks great and the action is clean and slick. Hayley Atwell plays Cap’s love interest Peggy Carter, and Tommy Lee Jones brings the movie some salty crunchiness as Colonel Chester Phillips.
Coming to America
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This Eddie Murphy comedy was released just before the Fourth of July in 1988, and celebrates its own take on the American Dream. In Coming to America (1988), Murphy plays the wealthy Prince Akeem, of the fictitious African nation of Zamunda. When he learns of his impending arranged marriage, he escapes to America. There, accompanied by his friend and manservant Semmi (Arsenio Hall), he pretends to be poor in hopes of finding a bride that will love him for who he is. (Although love interest Shari Headley does get to fall in love and become instantly rich!)
Murphy and Hall both play several characters in heavy makeup, notably in the famous barbershop sequence. Director John Landis was at the height of his powers here, bestowing his unique comic timing—weird little pauses, wide establishing shots, etc.—on the material and making it unique, and Murphy’s rapid-fire quips keep the comic energy up. (Look fast for a reference to the pair’s earlier hit Trading Places.) James Earl Jones co-stars as Akeem’s father, the king, and Samuel L. Jackson is a hold-up man. It was one of the year’s biggest hits, and received two Oscar nominations, for Costume Design and Makeup.