Happy Independence-Day-Falls-In-The-Middle-Of-The Week Week!
With that most patriotic of holidays splitting our week in half, I thought it would be a great time to not only revisit some of our most patriotic films but to categorize them. And so here’s a taxonomy of all the ways in which American movies can be patriotic.
The key throughline for all categories is that every patriotic film is a form of propaganda — i.e., the stories don’t leave much room for doubt about American exceptionalism and the patriotism is unsullied by skepticism.
Certain films, like Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” and “All the President’s Men,” are, in fact, entirely patriotic in their questioning of American values, institutions and social order. That’s what democracy’s all about, folks.
But that’s a messy, complicated, not exactly feel-good form of patriotism. This is the time for flags and fireworks. The time for big, fat American pride.
Next week, we can go back to asking questions like: Where is the line between patriotism and jingoism? Between American exceptionalism and nationalism? Questions like, Why does being born on one mass of land make you more worthy of human rights and dignity than being born on another mass of land?
Those are questions for next week. This week, I will drown out such queries with the roar of my F-150, a truck with an American flag decal sticker covering its back window.
This week, I will drown out your questions with the dutiful boom of the $800 worth of fireworks I bought this weekend in Rockport, Missouri. Smuggled 'em back across state lines in my flag-draped F-150, yessir.
Get ’er done. God bless America. (Red-faced guttural scream of national pride.)
* * *
The based-on-a-true story patriotic film
These are the films that recast historical events as misty-eyed (and mostly uncomplicated) tributes to a scrappy, can-do spirit, an ethos we claim as singularly American
These are the films in which a horse overcomes the Great Depression. In which ingenious scientists and astronauts overcome Earth’s gravitational pull. In which a mentally challenged man with a chocolate-box chock-full of folksy aphorisms can alter the course of the 20th century simply by being good at ping-pong and football.
Note: Yes, of course I know Forrest Gump was not a real guy who continually affected history, but all the shenanigans he got up to were related to real-life historical events and figures.
“The Right Stuff”
“Young Mr. Lincoln”
“Yankee Doodle Dandy”
The patriotic war movie
No cynical movies here. No “Platoon” or “Apocalypse Now” or “Aliens,” which is actually a really trenchant allegory for the Vietnam War.
In these films, there might be some doubt as to the mission at hand. But the support of the troops is absolute.
“Saving Private Ryan”
“We Were Soldiers”
“The Longest Day”
“Band of Brothers” (miniseries)
“Flags of Our Fathers”
The our-glorious-government patriotic film
A good number of movies about American politics are deeply cynical. (And again, fair, vigilant dissent toward the injustices of American institutions is, from a particular perspective, the most patriotic thing of all.)
But there are a few notable films that have starry eyes for the executive and legislative branches.
These movies full-throatedly believe in the system that America established to govern itself. These movies reveal that, yeah, sure, the system is broken in certain places. But all it needs to become whole again is a passionate speech from Jimmy Stewart, that most 'Merican of 'Merican actors.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
“The American President”
The pop entertainment patriotic film
These movies are the most effective and insidious form of patriotic agitprop, merely by nature of how entertaining they are and how thoroughly the American exceptionalism is baked into every frame of the spectacle.
The heroes overcome their obstacles not just because they are good but because they are American. Because Americans are the coolest, toughest, scrappiest, most ingenious, most practical, awesome, courageous, clear eyes, full heart, can't lose.
Hackers want to destroy America? Not if John McClane has anything to say about it.
An asteroid is about to run smack-dab into Earth (home to America and some other countries I don't know the names of)? Call up the deep-sea oil drillers.
Need to win WWII? We’ve got a comic-book super-soldier for that.
Hijackers took over Air Force One? No problem! Our president is Harrison Ford!
Having trouble breaking through the aliens’ defenses? I bet disgraced drunken hero pilot Randy Quaid has a crazy solution!
“Captain America: The First Avenger”
“Air Force One”
“Live Free or Die Hard”
The “Transformers” movies
The I-hate-Russians patriotic film
An entire generation of action movies were built on Cold War anxieties and America’s collective animosity toward the Soviet Union.
The '80s were almost too perfect a breeding ground for the hard-body action hero. A movie star had become President. Hollywood entered politics. Politics entered Hollywood.
And a new breed of action hero dominated blockbusters: the beefy all-American male (sometimes with an Austrian accent) who punched, shot and bazooka-ed every Russian villain back over the Iron Curtain, if not straight to hell.
More than any other type of patriotic movie, the I-hate-Russians genre understands the chest-thumping power of hating one’s enemy without reservation and how such hatreds bring us all together.
“Rambo: First Blood Part II”
“Olympus Has Fallen” (in this case, the invaders are North Korean, but they might as well be ’80s Russian villains)
I leave you with the greatest scene in movie history: