Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Most Appropriate Independence Day Films

Since it's our anniversary, I figured I would highlight some quality movies that reflect the character of this country. By "character," I mean the positive aspirational sentiments of this nation and its people, so exclude "The Scarlet Letter" and "Missing" (the Jack Lemmon pic). By "quality," I mean fairly good movies, so "Independence Day: ID4" and "National Treasure" are out.

The Right Stuff
This is an exceptional movie. It's hard to find a flaw as the picture charts the creation of NASA and the space race. It follows the lives of pilots who became astronauts, scientists who both helped and struggled against them, and the government officials who brought them all together. Courage, patriotism, and ambition are writ large across the screen throughout.

But the movie isn't exactly jingoistic fluff. There's enough "bite" in some of the dialogue to express serious practical and human concerns - like LBJ being forced to wait outside the home of an astronaut's wife. Johnson is there for a state visit and publicity op, while she's just terrified that her beloved man will die horribly. Another brave astronaut is humiliated and demoralized when he learns he won't get a ticker-tape parade.

A beautiful fireworks display, too pretty to matter that it's in Sydney, Australia.

"Silverado," like "TRS," is a film with a broad cast and a hoard of themes. It moves fluidly back and forth between folks in the Wild West : a pair of free-spirited brothers (Kevin Costner and Scott Glenn) who lack any bad intentions despite the trouble they get into. A black rifleman's family is being crushed by a despotic cattle baron and a pimp. An honorable crook (Kevin Kline) finds he's almost always getting double-crossed or manipulated.

I'm impressed enough by the determination and hope inside these disparate men, all rough but good-hearted. And it's all the more appropriate since they have to work together and risk everything they value to stop rampant corruption and murder.

It's a Civil War picture, and the problems aren't really about military supplies, training, or organization. You see the underlying conflict in the words of men who are abolitionists, but don't believe blacks are equal to whites. The movie makes its points perfectly, though, at the end: their final charge ends in failure, and all the Union corpses - black and white - are tossed into the same ditch.

All the President's Men
Woodward and Bernstein uncovered the 1972 Watergate burglaries, ultimately connecting them to President Nixon. The pair released a book about their endeavors after Robert Redford said he wanted the film rights to their story. Two years later, W&B got to see Redford and Dustin Hoffman play out the tale on a big screen.

Always in danger, always pushing against impossible odds, two reporters do everything they can to uncover high-level government corruption. Throughout, you realize that they're not trying to make a name for themselves or increase their paper's circulation - they're terrified and angered by the abuse of power they've discovered. Who watches the Watchmen? The Washington Post, apparently. It gets extra points for being released during our bicentennial.

Fireworks on a skyscraper are too cool for me to care that this is in Taipei, Taiwan.

The ultimate underdog story, "Rocky" shows us the bitter-sweet struggles and unusual victory of a boxer reduced to collecting for a loan shark. Sylvester Stallone plays the lead, a man who's not even a "has-been" - he's a "never was." A pure fluke gives him the chance to take on the current boxing champion, Apollo Creed (played by the great Carl Weathers).

Mr. Creed is Don King and Muhammad Ali in one body - promoting the hell out of the event, he stresses that this match is all about the American Dream: a total unknown now has the chance to rise to the top, and he'll do it in Philadelphia during the nation's 200th anniversary. Apollo is superior to his opponent in every way - confident, wealthy, educated, clever, outspoken... But the better man (Apollo) is also a little too comfortable, and he underestimates his down-trodden competitor big-time.

Rocky Balboa is fueled by more than a money pay-out or the chance to become the new champ - the will to win is drawn from the raw desperation of Rocky's awful life, his horrible need to prove himself to himself. He finds more strength and support in his new love, Adrian (Talia Shire).

Adrian experiences her own self-improvement too. She discovers her inner suffragette at the same time that she finds romance; as a spinster in a small, unhealthy Italian-American family, she's a second-class citizen in her own home. She too gains confidence and ambition as the film progresses.

The victory they achieve - as individuals and together - is not quite what you'd expect, but it's extremely touching. "Rocky" gets super-bonus July 4th points for being released and set in 1976; it's actually central to the plot.

A beautiful display on Tybee Island, Georgia.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
An educated tough guy, Indiana Jones is almost over-stuffed with the American spirit. Clever and utterly determined, Indy fights the good fight, even when he hopes to rob a country of its antiquities. Our principled rogue swims from a boat to the hull of Nazi submarine so he can rescue his girl, steal a priceless Egyptian artifact, and stop the Third Reich. Can't get much more American than that, can it?

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