As Van Morrison would say, it’s almost Independence Day. Half of this largely disappointing year is over. We need to have some fun. Get the blood pumping. Have some big-hearted laughs, ooh and ahh and take off our caps and put our hands on our hearts and sing some patriotic songs. I watched a lot of movies in preparation for writing this blog and it has been one of the most enjoyable genres to revisit. I got to watch a bunch of my favorite patriotic movies and many of them I watched more than once.
Having a bad day/week/year/life? This movie is the tonic for what ails you. It’s not going to actually solve any of your problems, but it sure will make you feel better for two hours. And that, my friends, is worth something. Maybe it’s even worth a lot. James Cagney stars as the legendary song and dance man George M. Cohan, composer of such stirring songs as Over There and You’re a Grand Old Flag and Yankee Doodle Boy. Cagney imitates Cohan’s stiff-legged style of dancing and turns in a bravura performance here that is energetic, inspirational, and uplifting.
And that final scene where he comes down the stairs at the White House after receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Franklin Roosevelt—Cagney improvised that tap dance descent of the stairs and it was done in one take. Watched it twice.
This is the other movie I watched twice this past week. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend that you do so. Pronto. And maybe even twice. This movie stars Gary Cooper in an iconic role as Alvin York, a backwoods boy from rural Tennessee, and is based on York’s real-life diary. He has a misspent youth spent drinking and fighting, experiences a religious conversion, and is conscripted into the Army for World War I after trying to avoid service as a Conscientious Objector (but was denied). York is harassed until his superiors discover his amazing skill as a marksman. This is an old-fashioned movie, and Cooper is magnificent. Don’t miss it.
I sometimes think we should declare the entire District of Columbia a Superfund site and bury it under fifty feet of concrete to contain the toxins that seem to have infected it. Or… sit down and watch this Frank Capra movie. James Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, a naive and idealistic young man appointed to a Senate seat after the death of the sitting Senator.
This movie has hokey written all over it if you’ve never seen it. But the film is actually quite dark. Portraying Washington and specifically the Senate as a deeply and hopelessly corrupt institution was shocking at the time and remains unsettling today. Marvelous performance by Stewart, and Claude Rains is one of the best bad guys ever in a political movie, even more cynical and appalling than his Captain Louis Renault character in Casablanca (1942).
Is this movie dopey? Yes. Yes, it is. It takes every trope and character type from 1970s disaster movies and updates them to the late 20 century. And this time the disaster is a blizzard at an airport or an earthquake in Los Angeles. Oh, no! It’s far worse. Space aliens. And these guys mean business. They are blowing everything up.
Now why is this goofball of a movie on our list of our favorite patriotic movies? One reason: Bill Pullman’s Presidential speech before he, Will Smith and looney Randy Quaid do battle with the aliens. If that speech doesn’t get you going at least a teeny tiny little bit, you have a heart of stone my emotionless friend. Give in and just enjoy the ride! It’s a lot of fun. (Cheering is allowed in the living room.)
Things were not going so well in the US in the late 1970s and bleeding into 1980: a stagnant economy, hostages in Iran, a seemingly paralyzed political system in Washington. And let’s not even get into the whole situation with my hair in those years. A total disaster. So here you have the best underdog sports story of all time. Kurt Russell is brilliant as US Hockey coach Herb Brooks.
Stirring—that’s what this movie is. The perfect movie for the 4th of July. And that scene where Brooks gives his famous pre-game talk in the locker room before the penultimate game with the Soviet Union… Russell nails it. In fact, just for fun, watch the Youtube video of the little kid who memorized that speech, got dressed up in a suit and tie, and had his dad film him giving the speech. Nailed it again.
Almost no one anticipated the impact that this movie would have on audiences when it was released. Really? Steven Spielberg makes a war movie? The guy who made E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (both great pictures, no doubt) is expecting me to take his war movie seriously? Well, yes. This is one of the greatest war pictures ever made, up there with Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).
Spielberg brings the horror of war to a level of intimacy almost never seen before. The opening sequence of the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day is terrifying in ways that are difficult to watch. Spielberg showed us what war and a true sense of duty are all about. (Now if someone could convince him to cut the opening and closing scenes at the American cemetery in France from the film, it would be the perfect movie.)
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and theBBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.