The United States is “my country, right or wrong,” of course, and I consider myself a patriotic person, but I’ve never felt that patriotism meant blind fealty to the idea of America’s rightful dominance over global politics or culture, and certainly not to its alleged preferred status on God’s short list of favored nations, or that allegiance to said country was a license to justify or rationalize every instance of misguided, foolish, narrow-minded domestic or foreign policy. I believe that patriotism entails honesty, a willingness to celebrate not only the energy and enthusiasm of living in a society like ours, but also confronting the enduring implications of its wildness, its inequities, its self-delusions, its diversity, its restlessness, its brutality, its paranoia and its political and social mythologies.
So as “go-to” as a movie like Yankee Doodle Dandy might be on July 4, my cinematic tendencies on this holiday run more toward films that look to examine the quality of a land that is more than ever bursting at the seams, in both the positive and negative, movies that attempt to grapple with America and all the shades of its messy, imperfect grandeur. I want to see movies that shed light on the dark corners which might somehow reflect back a heightened clarity about how we got to this point in our history, where increasing understanding of people who have been marginalized in this country for centuries still coexists with alarming, religious-based bigotry, intolerance and fear, and where belief in hard work and dreams of prosperity are continually dampened and smothered by economic hardship and unparalleled greed. I love movies about America that deal with its blissful possibilities, the transcendent and potentially dangerous fireworks of its culture, the slumbering animal located under the surface of the country's self-image that occasionally awakens and wreaks political and social havoc.
Most of all, I love movies about America that celebrate its orneriness, its pugnacious worship at the altar of an ever-shifting notion of togetherness, movies that recognize the cheerful comedy of our self-aggrandizement, that suggest the greatest myth about this country might be that of our collective loss of innocence, landmarked by whatever chosen, significant social event, as if there was ever any innocence to lose. Here then are eight double features, some unlikely combinations perhaps, that begin to encompass, for me, the vast wonder and folly of life in America over the past 236 years, the movies that make me grateful for the freedoms of artists who aren’t afraid (occasionally, anyway) to see America for what it is and also what it isn’t.
Ace in the Hole (1951; Billy Wilder) and Used Cars (1980; Robert Zemeckis)
Two masterpieces on the dissection of American hucksterism. Wilder’s brutal drama blisters upon first touch, an examination of the extremes (which if anything have become even more extreme) of our culture of rubbernecking and appropriation of tragedy as journalistic entertainment. Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale perhaps don’t cut as deep as Wilder does, but their vision of the gleefully pervasive nature of corruption in small-time American business and politics (which is, of course, a reflection of the big time) is just as cynical and difficult to refute. The added bonus comes in the release of all those toxins in the form of the bitterest of belly laughs.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976; Robert Altman) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1969; Sergio Leone)
A great American iconoclast examines the legacy of a great blowhard of the American west, locating the nexus of personal celebrity and national self-delusion, while a great Italian iconoclast tempers his romantic vision of that same West with an unblinking nihilism and digs deep into the iconography of a nation’s self-created mythological underpinnings. (It’s amusing to remember that Altman’s film, one of the bitterest comedies about America, was his bicentennial gift to the nation. America thanked him by largely ignoring it and heading out to a big summer picnic. And Leone’s movie didn’t do too well over here either.)
The General (1925; Buster Keaton) and The Right Stuff (1983; Philip Kaufman)
Technological progress in American history, courtesy of Keaton, in which he tours the landscape of the Civil War (and the first hints of the industrial revolution) while on a great locomotive chase that keeps him in dire straits and treacherous contortions for the entire hilarious ride. Likewise, Philip Kaufman’s treatment of Tom Wolfe’s brief history of the space program finds satirical purpose in sending western-infused American can-do integrity up against the well-oiled machine of patriotic promotion in contrasting flight pioneer Chuck Yeager with the Mercury astronauts. The two movies reflect ideas about the purpose of and control over the machines that helped make this country with brashly distributed energy and vision and not just a little insouciant charm.
The Godfather (I & II) (1972, 1974; Francis Ford Coppola) and Nixon (1995; Oliver Stone)
American history writ large, through the fictionalized saga of the Corleones’ rise to and fall from power, and the factually based, but also intensely speculative history of one of the country’s most reviled political figures. (Who knew RMN would have, less than 30 years later, such vigorous competition for that standing?) The tangled, bitter roots of the American dream have rarely been traced with the emotional gravitas that Coppola brings to his film, and Stone’s patented political hysteria (and surprising empathy) has never resonated more deeply or as sharply as it does here.
Mandingo (1975; Richard Fleischer) and Fall from Grace (2007; K. Ryan Jones)
Fleischer’s lurid adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s lurid novel of degradation in the 19th-century American slave trade remains the great, underappreciated movie on the subject. (I wrote about it here in 2008.) And Jones’ searing documentary about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is all the evidence you’ll ever need that hatred and intolerance are alive and well and just as inexplicable in the 21st century. Seen together, in a semblance of art and reportage, the two comprise a despairing vision of a country that can claim some progress on the (overt) racism front but which remains hard-pressed in some quarters to remember that Phelps’ hysterical bile is precisely the sort of religious justification once used to prop up slavery and segregation.
Nashville (1975; Robert Altman) and 1941 (1978; Steven Spielberg)
The damnedest things I ever saw. Altman’s movie is a snapshot mosaic of a country in crisis that recognizes just how often joyous release and crippling despair go hand in hand. (The freeway accident that turns into a tailgate party is one of the movie’s great metaphors.) And Spielberg’s great, graceful mastodon (directed from another Zemeckis/Gale script) glories in how pop culture patriotism is often a disguise for every form of socially acceptable and unacceptable insanity. The two movies, in their form and attack, might seem quite dissimilar, but I think they’re united by a musically informed vision of America as a land where only the slimmest lines of red, white and blue separate exuberance from hysteria, and paranoia from indifference.
Night of the Living Dead (1968; George A. Romero) and No Country for Old Men (2007; Joel and Ethan Coen)
The sleeping beast in residence at the dark heart of the national soul wakes up and takes a lumbering, unstoppable stroll through the countryside. Romero’s brutal, vital nightmare vision of social upheaval and undead onslaught has been widely (and tediously) imitated—Romero himself would never live up to it—and it had ties to just about every crisis of the tumultuous decade from which it came. Nearly 40 years later, the Coens translated Cormac McCarthy’s searing vision of an America of lost dreams and despairing landscapes, accessing imagery derived from movies as diverse as 2001 and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and in the process setting loose a killer who would no more be denied than one of Romero’s flesh eaters. The countries glimpsed through the savagery of these two movies certainly aren’t for old men, and they bode sleepless nights for the young as well.
Quiz Show (1994; Robert Redford) and The Bad News Bears (1976; Michael Ritchie)
The aforementioned myth of American innocence lost gets a good thrashing from these two films. Redford’s movie, from a Paul Attanasio script detailing the televised Van Doren game show scandal of the ‘50s, suggests that while there may have been no real innocence to lose, there sure was a lot of integrity at stake— little of which has seemed to survive television’s ever-increasing hold on the reality-show-obsessed consciousness of a nation more grafted than ever to the electronic teat. Similarly, Michael Ritchie and writer Bill Lancaster operate from the premise that Little League is no field of dreams but instead a scuffed diamond populated with familiar forms of corruption and less than stellar adult role models. It’s the fight in the Bears the filmmakers find admirable, a sense that, now as much as in 1976, there’s something representative of the citizenry in the great American pastime worth fighting for. Quiz shows and baseball have always harbored cheaters and ne’er-do-wells, but these movies suggest there are still ways to win by playing the game. (See also Michael Ritchie’s 1975 movie Smile. )