Saturday, July 2, 2011

12 Films That Made Me Love America

I became a U.S. citizen a couple of years ago. Don’t ask me why it took so long. I had a Green Card for something like 25 years, and I always knew I’d eventually become a real citizen. Along the way certain films would reinforce that desire. I’m not talking about the kind of macho fantasies that pass for “patriotic” movies. I’m talking about films that convey America’s many complexities, while still somehow managing to reaffirm my love for it. Indeed, many of these films might be deemed “un-patriotic” by some people. To those people I say, “Phffft.” Here are 12 films that made me want to become an American, in no particular order.

1.) All the President’s Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula)
The Watergate scandal may have led to a crisis of confidence in the country, but if you think about it, it was also one of our finer hours – in which the most controlling and corrupt executive in modern U.S. history was brought down by the perseverance and independence of two ordinary reporters who refused to be cowed by threatening displays of power. Some on the Right may try to claim a monopoly on American-ness, but Woodward (birthplace: Geneva, Illinois, USA) and Bernstein (birthplace: Washington, D.C., USA), at least as depicted in this film, are pretty much the working definition of American heroes.

All the President's Men

2.) Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)
In case you weren’t sure, that title is in fact meant to be ironic. Oliver Stone’s masterpiece follows Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) from his youthful days as a rah-rah All-American jock through the crucible of Vietnam to his emergence as a paraplegic anti-war protester. But that journey of disillusionment is mirrored by one of self-awakening, as Kovic discovers the power of his own voice. Example: Stone shoots Kovic’s disruption of the 1972 Republican National Convention (and subsequent hauling off by security while fresh-faced Nixon Youth spit vitriol at him) like it was the parting of the Red Sea. Perhaps because it’s a journey Stone himself probably knows something about -- having gone from writing pseudo-fascist fantasies like Conan the Barbarian to becoming the country’s foremost chronicler of its stray ideals.

3.) The Godfather, Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
I suppose there’s something perverse about including a film that makes the corruption of the American Dream its oft-stated subject, but Coppola’s film is also, as it so happens, the most powerful depiction of said dream that I’ve seen, particularly in its flashbacks to Vito Corleone’s earlier years. I mean come on:

4.) The New World (2005, Terrence Malick)
I know. Malick. Of course. Here’s what I wrote in my review at the time of the film’s release: “[The New World] isn't about Indians and settlers so much as it is about salvation. Pocahontas saves the fallen dreamer [John] Smith, only to herself be saved in her moment of disgrace by the patient, practical [John] Rolfe, setting up their subdued love triangle as a kind of romantic dialectic between idealism and pragmatism — which also (surprise!) happen to be the twin poles of the American experience. In its own audacious, iconoclastic way, The New World returns hope to one of our founding myths. It dares to suggest that the nation was borne not of blood, violence, and persecution, but of romantic redemption and a love that passeth understanding.” 

5.) The Long Gray Line (1955, John Ford)
John Ford’s look at the life of an Irish immigrant (Tyrone Power) who started off as a dishwasher at West Point and wound up spending decades at the military academy (later working in the athletics department) is the kind of borderline jingoistic film I can actually get behind –tender, boisterous, and almost unbearably human. It’s one of the more gentle military movies you’ll ever see – perhaps because it doesn’t have any real war scenes. Not as “deep,” perhaps, as the best of Ford’s cavalry films, but it does feel like the purest distillation of this particular director’s genuine love for his country.

The Long Gray Line

6.) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)
William Wyler’s epic about the many challenges – physical, marital, professional -- faced by soldiers returning from WWII most definitely struck a chord with a newly victorious nation, winning eight Oscars and making a mint at the box office (though that didn’t stop some from hilariously accusing it of communist propaganda; apparently they objected to the portrayal of some bankers). Wyler gets little credit for being a stylist, but his use of deep focus here is on par with anything in Citizen Kane. (It helps that Gregg Toland shot this, too.) But that’s not why this film is on my list. The sensitive and subtle portrayal of its veteran heroes – somewhat surprising, given the gung-ho zeitgeist of the times -- hasn’t dated one bit. Not everybody agrees: Andrew Sarris, displaying his adorable allergy towards movies that actually achieve what they set out to accomplish, once labeled it “humanitarian blackmail.”

7.) and 8.) Brewster McCloud (1970) and Nashville (1975, Robert Altman)
A bona-fide war hero who picked apart the darkest corners of his country’s soul like they were the wings of a well-boiled chicken, Robert Altman was quite possibly the most American of directors.  Sure, the patriotic pageantry on display in these two films is tongue-in-cheek, but look at their boisterous, freewheeling narratives, their constantly dreaming characters, their poisonous sarcasm, their hauntingly corrosive finales, and tell me these movies could have existed in any other country but this one. (Not that the country noticed, but still.)

9.) Waking the Dead (2000, Keith Gordon)
Again: Odd, perhaps, to include a movie that opens with its heroine being blown away by what is probably a CIA car bomb, but Keith Gordon’s way, way underrated film about the romance between a headstrong activist (Jennifer Connelly) and a straight-arrow conservative Coast Guard officer (Billy Crudup) does one of the best jobs I’ve ever seen of portraying the way Americans of sharply different political stripes can not only get along but directly influence each other, even from beyond the grave: In the film’s contemporary storyline, Crudup’s character, now a politician, loses and regains his soul as he’s haunted by the spectral presence of his idealistic late paramour.

10.) Amistad (1997, Steven Spielberg)
"And if it means civil war? Then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution." 

11.) Manhattan (1979, Woody Allen)
The idea that one of his films might make someone proud to be an American would probably send Woody Allen into a fit of non-stop vomiting, but I must insist. Everybody of course remembers that opening voiceover, in which Isaac Davis (Allen) tries out opening lines to his novel. It’s clear he loves New York --“He adored New York City” is more often than not the first sentence. But he keeps wanting to delve into its flaws, to undercut his love (“To him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture,” “He romanticized it all out of proportion,” etc.). He finally settles on acceptance: “New York was his town, and it always would be.” That opening mirrors the trajectory of the film itself: “Boy, this is really a great city,” our resident cynic later says. “I don't care what anybody says. It's really a knock-out.” What does that have to do with loving one’s country? Everything, when you think about it – especially since, as someone once said, New York is The America Factory.

12.) Team America: World Police (2004, Trey Parker)
It pretty much goes against everything I just wrote, but I’d be lying if I didn’t put this on here.


  1. Ebiri at his finest! Absolutely smashing!

  2. The original script of Conan the Barbarian was very, very different from the one that ended up on screen. Mostly because the director was one John Milius...

    That said, it's probably for the best that version of Conan wasn't made, on account of it being a drug-fuelled mess of stupidity.

  3. This is a great list--I'd sub out Bullets over Broadway for Manhattan, Short Cuts for Brewster (haven't seen it yet, little hesitant). All the President's Men, The Godfather Part II, Nashville, and Born on the 4th of July are great choices, as is Team America.

    Team America should've gotten a best original song nomination.

    Clearly need to see Amistad.

    I think I'll skip the John Ford though--already seen Young Mr. Lincoln, The Searchers, Grapes of Wrath, and Stagecoach, and only really enjoyed Grapes of Wrath.

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