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6 Movies that’ll restore your faith in the U.S. of A.



Paul Asay - published on 06/30/17

These classic films remind us that America’s weaknesses sometimes hide its greatness.

Ah, Independence Day — a time when most of us Americans will get as American as we can, scarfing down hot dogs and apple pie, watching baseball and fireworks, maybe even stuffing macaroni in our caps and calling it — oh, sorry about that. Got the song a little mixed up.

Which, come to think of it, may symbolize where we are as a nation these days: A little confused.

America feels like it’s been in a bit of a funk lately. It’s been that way for a while, according to Gallup. Back in the spring of 2004, a good, solid majority of us thought things were A-OK in the U.S. of A. … but that was the last time. This May? Only 31 percent thought America was headed in a positive direction.


Read more:
What a Russian dissident can teach us about true patriotism on Memorial Day

Hard to enjoy the fireworks while we’re feeling so glum.

But fear not, my countrymen (and countrywomen). The movie industry — that most American of institutions — has our backs.

The six movies that follow are as American as your local stars-and-stripes flag factory, as patriotic as your grandma’s red-white-and-blue Jell-O dessert. These films don’t showcase a perfect America: In fact, some of them show a deeply flawed and troubled nation indeed. But they do stress that whatever we face, we can overcome — as long as we tackle our challenges with good old-fashioned courage, grace, and idealism. They show us that while American Exceptionalism might be an idea long gone, the country’s still full of some pretty exceptional Americans.

Imagine Entertainment and Universal Pictures | Fair Use

Apollo 13 (1995)

“Houston, we have a problem.” Before master-of-understatement Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) spoke those words, no one much cared about the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. By 1970, space travel had become a bit … boring. But when one of the oxygen tanks on board suddenly explodes and the lives of the three astronauts on board are endangered, the nation takes notice. The best minds in the country race against the clock to bring the astronauts home safely, using guts, American ingenuity and even a bit of duct tape to get the job done. This rousing docudrama is worth a watch, and it reminds us that success isn’t everything, even in a nation that loves its winners. Even failure can be inspiring, too.

(Rent it on iTunes or for $3.99.)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Marvel Studios | Fair Use

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Any one of Marvel’s Captain America movies could’ve made this list, but my favorite is the second — wherein ol’ Cap (Chris Evans) realizes that S.H.I.E.L.D., the good-guy organization he works for, might not be so good after all. Critics of superhero movies say they’re all style, no substance. To them, I hold up Winter Soldier in rebuttal. This flashy thriller gives us some interesting moral complexity and casts America’s ultimate soldier as a rebel of sorts. He must fight a corrupt authority and follow his conscience, even as he continues to protect those American values he cherishes. The Winter Soldier reminds us that patriotism isn’t just a matter of saluting the flag, but of sometimes questioning those who raise it.

(Rent it on iTunes or for $3.99.)

TriStar Pictures | Fair Use

Glory (1989)

When the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched to the front lines during the Civil War, they weren’t just fighting the Confederates in front: They were fighting racism in the rear. Members of the all-black regiment (still led by white officers) were denied supplies by their quartermaster. They were paid less than white soldiers. And for most of the war, they weren’t even allowed to fight. But thanks to the bravery of soldiers like Silas Tripp (Denzel Washington) and the principled solidarity of officers like Col. Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the 54th earns the grudging respect of the Union army. It’s sad that a nation formed under the words All men are created equal took so long to follow through on them. (Many would argue that we still have a ways to go.) But Glory illustrates the truth of Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent words, even if Jefferson himself didn’t wholly believe them.

(Rent it on iTunes or for $3.99.)

Fair Use

High Noon (1952)

Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is all set to retire happily with his beautiful new bride (Grace Kelly) when he receives word that a dangerous young criminal has been released — and he and his gang plan to pay Kane a lethal visit. Throughout this classic Western, Kane tries to recruit people to help bring down these evildoers, but to no avail: They’re too scared. His wife and deputy (Lloyd Bridges) try to encourage him to run away, but he refuses. “I’ve never run from anybody before,” he says. And so he stands up to this band of Western bullies — alone. With all due respect to John Wayne, Gary Cooper’s my picture of the classic American movie hero, and in High Noon he’s at his best. And I think it offers a good lesson for us today in these complex, dangerous times: Yes, peace is always preferable. Yes, pragmatic caution is a good rule to follow. But sometimes, when all else fails, you have to stand up and fight.

(Rent it on iTunes or for $3.99.)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and DreamWorks | Fair Use

Lincoln (2012)

Newly retired Daniel Day-Lewis earned his third best acting Oscar for playing what many would say is our greatest president. It traces only a small portion of Lincoln’s life, though, as Lincoln tries to hammer through the 13th Amendment, which will officially free slaves across the nation. Abraham Lincoln is rightly remembered for his kindness and homespun wisdom. This Steven Spielberg film shines a spotlight on an aspect of Lincoln we often overlook: What a consummate politician he was. Using favors and pressure and some questionable means, Lincoln dirties his hands to wash clean the nation of one of its greatest crimes. The movie reminds us that American politics can be pretty problematic. But even in its imperfections, some remarkable work can be done.

(Lincoln is available on Showtime)

Columbia Pictures | Fair Use

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) is a wet-behind-the-ears senator — an appointment to replace a politician who recently died. He arrives in Washington full of naive idealism, apparently believing all the patriotic bunk he’s been feeding his Boy Rangers troop. It doesn’t take long for Smith to be disenchanted with the process. Corrupt political bosses and shady politicians want to turn him into a pawn to help further their own sordid schemes, and when he refuses, they try to bring him down. In desperation, Smith turns to one of the strangest, unsexiest weapons in the political arsenal: the filibuster. If ever there’s a movie that makes you reflect on both the beauties and imperfections of our own political system, this is it. And it suggests that in America, no matter what odds lean against the little guy, the little guy can still win if he’s pure of heart (and glib of tongue).

(Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is available to stream on Hulu for free if you have a Hulu subscription; you can also sign up for a free trial.)

No, America’s hardly perfect. We read headlines that make us crazy, see injustices that make us angry. But whether you’re red or blue, Republican or Democrat or somewhere in between, these films hopefully remind us that America’s weaknesses sometimes hide its greatness. And on Tuesday, let’s remember what a great place it is.

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