The Fourth of July movie problem

By Matt Martin


There’s a time of the year for any kind of movie. That is, if you watch a lot of films across the year, one tends to find that certain movies just seem to work better during certain times of the year.

Obviously, Christmas and Halloween movies work best during their respective seasons. And it would stand to reason that a very summertime movie, like say a beach comedy, would just seem to work better in the hotter months. Old black and white suspense thrillers just seem a touch more sinister when watched during the cooler, darker moments of the fall. People watch more serious dramas in winter. And people love dumb action movies and mindless comedies in the summer.

The patterns are obvious, and Hollywood adjusts its release schedule accordingly. Our environment enhances our art and vice versa.

As the Fourth of July is America’s most patriotic holiday, regularly celebrated by a majority of the population, it’s not surprising that it’s also the only time of year where casual movie fans and cinema junkies alike dust off their collection of Americentric films (is that even a word? Meh, I’m using it anyway) films that represent and signify all that is “America” to that viewer. Amidst fireworks, family, and sprawling dinners, people of all types will gather with friends and loved ones to share these cinema odes to red, white, and blue. But then, what exactly are we watching? Well, I guess that depends on what “America” is to you.

But therein lies the split. When suggesting possible films for any occasion, this holiday presents a unique problem: How do you want to celebrate America? For some, the holiday is virtually holy and is treated with the upmost seriousness. For them, only the most uplifting, positive, reassuring, pro-country films will do.

For others, the holiday has a different significance. For those with a love/hate relationship with this country, those who question, disagree, dislike, or are generally just skeptical of this country, the holiday can be problematic, unintentionally amusing or just off-putting.

In light of all this, it’s difficult to know what film experience to suggest.

Lucky for you, film lovers, I’m well versed in both. So when you huddle down with family and friends this Fourth of July holiday, before you cue up the wrong movie, consult one of my two lists, depending on your audience. Love it or hate it, we’re all a part of this country. Choose accordingly. And whether you’re under a sky full of fireworks with tears in your eyes, or you’re just holding a sparkler and laughing at the whole affair, let cinema illuminate your holiday. Now, hand me a roman candle with just a hint of irony.

“The Pros” or, the Slavishly Patriotic Fourth of July Films:

1) Top Gun: In the 1980s, under the veil of the last days of the Cold War, unquestioning patriotism may not have been as popular as it was in the 1940s, but it was definitely at its zenith of coolness. Never was this more obvious than in the cultural milestone that was Top Gun. With its lack of coherent plot, its thin-as-paper characters, its slipshod editing, and its ridiculous pop culture rock soundtrack, it changed how movies were made.

Gone was the era of smart, intelligent American cinema that had risen in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s. Just like that big, dumb, loud, simple movies were in. And if they were wrapped in faux patriotism, all the better! Watch Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer bicker about being the “best” fighter pilot, while Kenny Loggins sings in the background! Watch Russian pilots have as much personality and humanity as stormtroopers from Star Wars (they’re all just faceless evil things it’s okay to kill them)! Watch as we commit war crimes by shooting down Russian planes in neutral territories because we can! (If this were true, it would have triggered World War 3).

Truly, no movie so blindly revels in American badassery like Top Gun, whose name alone was meant to be a side reference to our global superiority. Classic.

2) The Patriot: Mel Gibson, before he went all-the-way crazy, delivered up this one-sided gem without even the slightest care about historical accuracy. In this America, there doesn’t appear to be any slavery, and it didn’t take a group of our best and brightest to debate and reform civilization through laws and action it just took Mel Gibson going ape with a tomahawk on a bunch of British redcoats (who are as faceless and without humanity as the Russians in Top Gun).

Directed by Roland Emmerich with the same subtlety and grace that he brought to Godzilla and Independence Day (if you don’t know I’m kidding, stop reading now), the movie is a mess. But all you need to know about the America of The Patriot is that it is best personified by a slow-motion shot of a screaming Mel Gibson, plunging an American flag through a British soldier’s chest. Now, THAT’S good revolution.

3) Independence Day: … and speaking of dumb … Released in 1996, Roland Emmerich’s other hyper-patriotic film might be the dumbest, most non-sensical movie of that decade. Endless plot loops (alien technology can be accessed with a Macbook … fascinating … what luck), terrible performances (Will Smith, we love you. But this was just bad), and a way-too-tidy ending that never suggests the post-apocalyptic hell that America would have become following this little interplanetary war.

Sure, the White House being blown up by a giant U.F.O. is pretty cool, but the finest moment of patriotic glee comes when a group of naive liberals with WELCOME! signs are turned to radioactive dust by the insect-like aliens for daring to hope for peace. Many a conservative lives for that moment. In this, America’s enemies aren’t blind, faceless servants of an evil empire they’re out-and-out, freakin’ monsters. Nothing better than an enemy that’s easy to hate. Blow em up good!

4) Rambo 3 and Rocky 4: Sylvester Stallone has had a long career playing different classically strong American types. But never was the patriotic ooze on full blast like it was for this one-two punch of cheesy, pro-America crap. The Rambo movies may have started as a comment on veterans traumatized by the Vietnam war, but they sure didn’t end that way. By part 3, John Rambo had gone from disturbed, confused, war-weary vet to muscle ripped, one-liner-spewing avenger of liberty.

All the more hilarious, the plot concerns Rambo’s attempt to rescue his old commander from Russians in Afghanistan. He accomplishes this by arming, training and leading to the death every religious local he can find.

That would be the Muhajadeen, by the way. These were the same men who, in real life, fought and pushed back the Russian army out of Afghanistan in the early 1980s, with America’s help before they became religous fanatics and terrorists and decided America was their enemy. Whoops. Watching Rambo train the locals with patriotic fervor, completely unaware that our country would commit to a decade-long war with these people in a few short years, is cinematic gold.

If Sly Stallone’s character of Rambo wound up being a metaphor for America’s might, his character of Rocky Balboa was always meant to represent the opposite: the underdog, working-class American, who just the same, must fight physically and morally to uphold the American ideal of fairness and success. But, like in the Rambo series, the character just withered over time. In the first two, Rocky was a real, just-one-of-us guy, trying to make ends meet and have a real life. He never truly realizes the big ideals he’s fighting for.

But by Part 4, he might as well have a flag tattooed on his chest. By this point, he IS America, larger than life, clad in stars-and-stripes boxing shorts. And who’s he fighting this time? Not fellow down-to-earth, just-trying-to-be-my-best Apollo Creed like in the first ones. No, this time it’s Russian Ivan Drago, a blonde-haired Aryan Frankenstein who looks murderous (his classic dead-pan line to Rocky: “I must break you.”) And the Cold War is off again! In this corner, America is bruised, but tough and humble. In this corner, Russia is corrupt, hypocritical, and psychotic. You can’t get any more patriotic than this fight. That’s a scientific fact.

5) Air Force One: Hmmm. Harrison Ford is the American president. Terrorists take over his flight, led by Gary Oldman. He fights for us all in America by kicking their asses. Before landing. Lesson learned: Even our most liberal leaders are ready to go toe-to-toe. Be warned. Hyper-patriotic, campy, ridiculous and over-the-top. Genius.

6) The Actually Good Patriotic Films: To be completely fair, there are many patriotic, pro-country films that are honest, intelligent, well-made, and absolutely worth a watch. Not surprisingly, most of these are legends and multiple-award winners. We won’t waste space here with plot descriptions, but each of these is a must-see: Yankee Doodle Dandy, Patton, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Fighting Sullivans, 1776, Johnny Tremain, The Great Escape, Saving Private Ryan, Glory, The Music Man and All the President’s Men.

“The Cons” or, The Anti-Patriotism Fourth of July Films:

1) Dr. Strangelove: In the history of cinema, there might not be a darker or funnier anti-war film than this 1964 classic from legendary director Stanley Kubrick. An insane, paranoid America-loving general begins the opening waves of global nuclear war that a war room full of ego-driven, inept politicians and military men frantically try to stop. An ultra-bleak, but absolutely hysterical study of blind patriotism, muddled leadership, collapsing American ideals, and the inevitabilty of self-created disaster. George C. Scott steals every scene he’s in as General “Buck” Turgidson, who gleefully believes that complete global holocaust might be good for America, but it’s Peter Sellers who towers in this film in three seperate roles: as passive, child-like British officer Mandrake, as softspoken, ineffectual American president Muffley, and as the psychotic, wheelchair-bound, Nazi-turned-American scientist Dr. Strangelove.

More than slamming America’s misplaced patriotism, the film literally slams the whole world, showing every character, regardless of where they’re from, as stupid, cruel and dangerous. The ending might be one of the darkest in the history of movies, with an American pilot happily RIDING a nuclear bomb down into oblivian. Jaw-dropping brilliance.

2) The Deer Hunter: Released in 1979 and winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, this in-depth examination of the way that war affects the lives of normal, small-town people became an unexpected classic. Three young factory workers, who spend their weeks working and their weekends hunting and spending time with family, decide to enlist in the Army in order to support the Vietnam War. But after arriving, they quickly find fascination turning into horror, pride and patriotism turning into resentment, and hope for America’s future turning into cynicism. Even after the nightmares of war, each man tries to “come home” both physically and mentally in his own way. An astounding, heart-breaking film with award-winning, unforgettable performances from Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage and John Cazale.

3) Red Dawn: Wolverines!! In 1984, America was at one of its most rabidly patriotic (but secretly terrified) moments in the entire Cold War. What better time to release the most paranoid American film of the last 35 years? A group of midwest teenagers are forced to become well, terrorists, in order to protect the American mainland from an invasion of Russian soldiers. The kids even take on a name, calling themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. And even as they grow more adept at killing and surviving, they quickly descend into fascism, cruelty and the enjoyment of murder. In this cinematic reality, nothing is more American than Patrick Swayze executing a Russian prisoner by shooting him in the face while screaming, “We live here!!!”

It manages to be both chilling and cheesy, as fellow brat-packers Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey bring the American rage to a hopeless cause of protecting a homeland that can no longer protect you. One of the first films to carry a PG-13 rating, even though it clearly deserves an R. Best scene in the movie: The first, as bored students in a classroom stare out the window to pass the time, only to slowly see parachutes descending from the sky, impending disaster and doom.

4) The Oliver Stone Collection: The sheer output of Oliver Stone and his use of cinema as tool to dissect American history is an article on to itself. But no director has ever tried to attack America’s misplaced idealism, unforgiveable naivete, and out-and-out villainy as thoroughly as Stone has. Some of these are absolute genius, bringing a painful, but entrancing vision of American post-World War II society. In particular, the films JFK, Nixon, and Born on the Fourth of July are searing commentaries, equal amounts dramatic and informative. But no less important are the films Platoon (based on Oliver Stone’s own Vietnam experience), Wall Street, Talk Radio, Heaven and Earth, The Doors, World Trade Center, and W. Together, these films paint the ultimate unpatriotic portrait, with America a beautiful, but flawed and dangerous beast. Watch all of them in a row, and you’ll be starting your own terrorist group. Wolverines! Oh, sorry … I’m still thinking about Red Dawn.

5) Team America: World Police: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, took ultra-patriotism to a new level of insanity with this, chronicling the actions of a secret, American anti-terrorism team that sets out to stop real life Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who’s preparing global destruction. The catch? They used puppets to tell the story. Played completely straight with a degree of self-seriousness and intentionally referencing other odd puppet adventure childrens shows like Thunderbirds. Insanely funny and disturbing. Using marionettes to make a comment on supposed freedom (or are the patriotic dangling on someone elses strings?), Parker and Stone leave no pro-country stone unturned, managing to attack ever single sacred cow imaginable. And puppet sex? Yeah … they got that in there, too.

6) Idiocracy: From Office Space and Beavis & Butthead creator Mike Judge, this hilarious satire of America’s future was all but buried by original studio 20th Century Fox in 1999, never getting a theater release. Not hard to see why, as it portrays America in its worst light possible, as low-level Army cadet Joe is placed in experimental suspended animation, only to wake up 500 years later to find that America has literally “bred out” all smart people, leaving only the dumb to rule the land. Shot for shot, joke for joke, director Judge slams his American criticisms with amazing accuracy, leaving you lauging to tears, even as the chills set in.

7) Uncle Sam: Ummmm … it’s about an undead killer dressed as Uncle Sam slaughtering people. .. on the Fourth of July. It’s awesome. What else do you need to know? Watch it. Right now.

Now, kick back, fellow Americans and take the month of July to bathe in the best and worst cinematic studies of this beautiful, terrifying country.

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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