Thursday, July 12, 2007

Films about America


Last week a friend told me of a recent encounter in Europe with a gentleman who has based his perceptions about the United States entirely on the films he’s watched. When she asked him for examples, he listed off what she considered to be a horrifyingly distorted and misrepresentative sampling. When he asked her which movies he should be watching in order to get a more accurate feel for American sensibilities, she came to me for suggestions.

I’ve compiled a list below, in no particular order whatsoever, of what I think might be a good jumping off point. It is certainly not an exhaustive list and I know I’ve left off films for which I will blanch afterwards. I tried to pick films spanning well over half a century and avoided those that might be considered overly jingoistic or propagandistic — no point trying to give him a more truthful glimpse of our country by making it a falsely buoyant one. Still, I wanted the majority of these films to embody the best of our country, or at the very least, its best ambitions.

1. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
A poor Oklahoma family is forced off their land during the dustbowl and migrates with thousands of dispossessed farmers westward to California, suffering the misfortunes of the homeless during the Great Depression. Representing one of this nation’s most trying chapters, The Grapes of Wrath, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, is a poignant glimpse into the American class system and the everyman’s resolve to never buckle to external pressure.

2. All The President's Men (1976)
During the run-up to the 1972 presidential elections, a minor break-in at the Democratic Party National headquarters spirals into a Republican conspiracy at the highest levels, perhaps even the White House itself. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein struggle to uncover the truth in this magnificent film crystallizing the power and necessity of the press.

3. 12 Angry Men (1957)
12 Angry Men takes place almost entirely in a courthouse deliberation room as a jury mediates over the fate of a young Spanish-American accused of murdering his father. As the jurors’ prejudices and preconceptions about the trial, the accused, and each other begin to surface, the open and shut case becomes anything but. The film is a luminous look into our criminal justice system and the maxim of presumed innocence.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg pays homage to The Greatest Generation in this stunning film focusing on an Army unit’s search for a single soldier after World War II’s horrific Normandy invasion. The soldiers are a patchwork who’s who of American youth, and their quest rife with the heroics and fears common to us all.

5. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s seminal film about a single scorching day in New York City and the tempers that summer day ignites is a profoundly difficult film to watch. It is also profoundly important. It is a reminder that no matter how far we have come — and we have come far — race relations in this country still have a long way yet to go.

6. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
This adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved classic novel is awash in Americana without ever once stooping to cliché or cheep sentimentality. It is a gorgeous intersection of so many important facets of the American experience — life in the South, children growing up, fatherhood, the criminal justice system, and racism just to name a few. It also contains what just may be the most complete and perfect portrayal of manhood ever captured on celluloid.

7. In America (2002)
While the immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of those who passed through the doors of Ellis Island over a century ago is critical to understanding this county, we often forget that immigration is a constant and continues unabated today. When an aspiring Irish actor and his family illegally immigrate to the United States, they struggle with impoverished conditions and letting go of the ghosts of their past.

8. Glory (1989)
The Civil War quite literally tore this country in two. Glory is the story of the U.S.’s first all-black volunteer company, and their fight against the Confederates and the prejudices of their own Union army. One of the best war films ever made.

9. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
When a naive and idealistic young man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, his policies immediately collide with rampant political corruption. The film may be dated, but the themes sure aren’t. Frank Capra’s examination of the political machine and the shady deals that fuel it is as disturbing now as Jefferson Smith’s filibustering stand will forever be inspirational.

10. The Right Stuff (1983)
Tom Wolfe's book on the history of the U.S. space program is turned into a mesmerizing, hilarious, seat-of-your-pants thrill ride of a film. Covering everything from the breaking of the sound barrier to the Mercury space flights, The Right Stuff is a flat-out astonishing saga about America’s heroic race into space.

11. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This film observes the social re-adjustment of three World War II servicemen, each from a different stratum of society. One returns to an influential banking position, but finds it difficult to reconcile his past loyalties with new commercial realities. An ordinary working man can’t seem to hold down a job or pick up where his marriage left off. Having lost both his hands in battle, a naval veteran is unsure if his fiancée's feelings are those of love or pity. Each veteran's crisis is a microcosm of the experiences America’s warriors have faced and continue to face when returning to an alien world once called home.

12. The Godfather I and II (1972, 1974)
From Ellis Island ports of entry to subterranean crime to souls desperate for legitimacy to the death of the Old World and the dawn of the new, no films better capture the duality of the American spirit clutching at both the future and the past than these. Don Vito’s gradual handover of his criminal empire to his reluctant son and what that son will do to keep his families (biological and criminal) together is constantly compelling, frequently tragic and disturbingly capable of eliciting our sympathies and best hopes.

13. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
George Bailey has spent his entire life living for the people of Bedford Falls at the expense of his own dreams. When a situation beyond his control drives him to contemplate suicide, his guardian angel shows George what the world would have looked like had he not been in it. The nightmare vision shows George just how many lives he’s touched and that his own life, despite its setbacks, has truly been a wonderful one. This Dickensonian tale is both a Christmas and an American classic.

14. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick didn’t think that an accidental thermonuclear attack that led to the total annihilation of the human race was a laughing matter — but his film is. When a demented Air Force general looses his B-52 bomber squadron on the Soviet Union, the President of the United States and his advisors must do everything in their power to prevent mutually assured destruction. Will they succeed in time? Even while staring down an apocalypse, Americans prove they have an unquenchable ability to laugh at themselves in this Cold War dark comedy.

15. The Searchers (1956)
The Wild Wild West is that most quintessential of American touchstones. When an ex-Confederate soldier comes home from the Indian Wars to find that his family has been massacred and his young niece captured by the Comanches, he vows to get her back and kill every last Indian in the process. He searches for years, only to discover that his niece has been fully assimilated. Will his hatred for the Indians win out? Will he rescue his niece or kill her?

16. Rudy (1993)
Rudy grew up in a deprived Pennsylvania steel mill town where his destiny was decided the moment he was born. But Rudy had dreams of playing football for Notre Dame — not an easy goal when you have bad grades, poor athletic skills, and are only half the size of the other players. But Rudy has something no one else has — the drive and spirit of ten men, plus two. The sports film is characteristically American, as is the grit and determination exemplified by the main character. Truly, it’s not about winning, it’s about how you played the game.

17. Manhattan (1979)
The plot of Woody Allen’s marvelous comedy about love, sex, adultery, homosexuality, divorce, career dissatisfaction, and statutory rape (!) is secondary to its primary triumph — being perhaps the most beautiful cinematic love letter to an American city and its vibrant pulse of life ever made. Gershwin has never sound better.

18. Fight Club (2004)
You're young and fit. You have an easy, lucrative job. You have a large condo, Swedish furniture, hip art, electronic gadgets galore and a fridge full of condiments. Why then do you feel nothing? Why then are you emotionally and spiritually bereft? Fight Club is about so much more than bloodied faces and last minute twists. It is a modern day morality play warning of societal and personal decay. It is a profound postmodern tirade against our American consumer culture and the anarchic angst it generates.

19. On the Waterfront (1954)
As the government prepares to hold public hearings on union crime and underworld infiltration, a working-class longshoreman with a crisis of conscience reassesses his past and begins to reassert responsibility for his actions by standing up to the criminal organizations in control of the docks. Class, crime, religion, romance, misplaced allegiances and the titanic demigod that is Barlon Brando collide in this masterpiece by Elia Kazan.

20. Good Night, and Good Luck (2006)
It is the early 1950s, and the threat of Communism has created paranoia in the United States. Exploiting those fears, Senator Joseph McCarthy goes on a witch hunt to root out supposed infiltrators within the government. However, CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow decides to take a stand, exposing McCarthy’s fear mongering for what it really is, at a great personal toll to himself. Good Night, and Good Luck is a powerful look at the need to speak truth to power, even at the highest levels of government.

21. American Beauty (1998)
On the outside, the perfect couple and the perfect daughter live in the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood. But festering beneath it all is boredom, discontentment, hopelessness, and depression. From crisis to overcompensation and then placid acceptance, the meaninglessness of contemporary life is examined, superimposed utop a stark suburban canvas.

22. Forrest Gump (1994)
Encompassing the sweep of latter 20th century history with a twinkling innocence, Forrest Gump is the story of a man who, while not intelligent, has accidentally found himself a participant in numerous historic moments, even while his most fundamental desires elude him. Forrest Gump is proof that determination, courage, and love are more important than ability or intellect.

23. Stand and Deliver (1988)
Education in America is examined through a struggling school in a Hispanic neighborhood. A mathematics teacher, convinced that his students have potential, adopts unconventional teaching methods in an attempt to turn gang-bangers and students everyone else has given up on into some of the country's top scholars.

24. Documentary Tie: The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Errol Morris' groundbreaking documentary dramatically re-enacts the crime and later investigation of a police officer's murder in Dallas, Texas. Part purveyor of the Roshoman effect, part circumstantial indictment, part condemnation of scapegoat economics, The Thin Blue Line was actually responsible for setting an innocent man free from prison. Bowling for Columbine (2002) With his signature sense of angry humor, activist filmmaker Michael Moore sets out to explore the roots of America’s astronomical number of firearm deaths. He determines that the easy availability of guns, our violent national history, our sadistic entertainment and even poverty inadequately explain the carnage. He confronts America's culture of fear, bigotry and aggression and holds partially responsible the powerful political and corporate interests fanning this culture for their own unscrupulous gain.

25. The Apostle (1997)
Actor/director Robert DuVall examines religion in America through the life of a southern Pentecostal preacher whose stable world crumbles when he discovers his wife is having an affair and nearly beats her lover to death. Fleeing the law, he starts to preach on the lam, and along the way this unlikable hypocrite finds redemption for his life and soul. It is a story of crime and punishment, action and consequence, sin and forgiveness — as it should be.

What do you think of the list? What films am I forgetting? What films don’t deserve to be included? I've already been pondering several "Honorable Mentions," among them the political films: The Candidate, Bullworth and Dave. Let me know what you think...


At 8:44 AM, Blogger Warren Epstein said...

here's a list i'd compiled a few weeks after 9/11.

Now showing: AMERICA
Warren Epstein; The Gazette

The renewed wave of patriotism spreading over our country after the Sept. 11 attacks can be seen in the flags hanging from porches and storefronts.

What those flags represent can be explained in yellowing copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

But a much more three-dimensional portrait of what it means to be American can be found in the films we love.

In the past few days, I've struggled to come up with a list of 25 films that define the American experience. The result is a mixed – and personal - vision of what I think about my homeland. Some of my choices are period pieces, some modern. Some depict us at our best. Others depict our struggles and foibles.

As movies were added to and subtracted from my list, I kept thinking about what I'd hand to new immigrants as a kind of video Welcome Wagon package.

Here's what I ended up with.

"AVALON" (1990) - Barry Levinson's story of an Eastern European Jewish family adjusting to a new life in Baltimore has the most enchanted, lovingly photographed vision of an immigrant's arrival in the New World. Fireworks explode on the Fourth of July as Sam Krichinsky, just off the boat from Ellis Island, looks around in wonder and awe at his sparkling new homeland.

"ROCKY" (1976) - An Italian-American thug (Sylvester Stallone) whose idea of romantic banter is "Yo, Adrian!," eloquently demonstrates America's underdog ethic in action as he rises from the streets to go toe to toe with the best.

"MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON" (1939) - This Frank Capra film starring James Stewart acknowledges the corruption that creeps into American politics, but it reveals our steadfast belief that lone patriots will emerge to stand by the principles of our founding fathers.

"IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE" (1946) Yes, another Jimmy Stewart movie. This heartwarming Christmas movie not only represents America's faith in God but our belief that life has meaning when we help others.

"MIDNIGHT COWBOY" (1969) - We are a land of dreamers. This ground-breaking character drama showed how those dreams reach even into the gutters of our cities, where visions of better a life bring together two unlikely losers.

“THE STRAIGHT STORY" (1999) - David Lynch set aside his crown as bizarro king to take us on a journey through the heartland with Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a man who drives his lawnmower across Iowa to see his ailing, estranged brother. It's a touching story about forgiveness, wisdom and the parts of America that most of us move too fast to see.

"GREEN DRAGON" (2001) - Few moviegoers outside the festival circuit have yet seen this poignant film about a little-known chapter of the Vietnam War. An isolated American camp for Vietnamese refugees would seem an odd place to inspire patriotism. But you need to see the look in the refugees' eyes when one gets a trip off camp and relates stories of the wonders beyond.

"APOLLO 13" (1995) - Few films say more about American courage and ingenuity than this thriller about a failed mission on the new frontier of space.

"HIGH NOON" (1952) - Although "Apollo 13" reveals our collective courage, this classic Western demonstrates our courage as individuals. We're a country of cowboys, who, like Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) will face down the bad guy no matter how bad the odds.

"STAGECOACH" (1939) - This classic John Ford Western, starring John Wayne, showed our country's romantic notions, not only about the West, but the outlaws who lived by their own rules.

"UNFORGIVEN" (1992) - Those early Westerns romanticized gunfighters, but they would eventually give way to a new kind of Western. That's because ours is a culture with a deep conscience; this relentlessly bleak Clint Eastwood film shows our re-examination of our once-beloved outlaw.

"EASY RIDER" (1969) - Like no other country, America loves the open road and the freedom it represents. "Easy Rider" strapped us onto the back of motorcycles of Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) as they trekked across the nation, looking for America.

"LOST IN AMERICA" (1985) - Sixteen years later, we're stuck in a Winnebago with David and Linda Howard (Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty), breaking out of our cubicles to follow the trail blazed by Billy and Wyatt. We know it's nuts, but at least we can laugh at our foolishness.

"THE BLUES BROTHERS" (1980) - It's a road movie, a soulful musical; it has a car chase through a mall, it makes fun of Nazis; its heroes are blues musicians. If there's a more American movie than this romping comedy, bring it on.
"MANHATTAN" (1979) - These days, patriotism can be seen in "I Love NY" T-shirts as Americans pull together to show their support for the victims in Manhattan and beyond. Nobody has written love letters to Gotham like Woody Allen. This great comedy begins with a gorgeous black-and-white montage of the city to the strains of Gershwin's
"Rhapsody in Blue," followed by the ramblings of a struggling writer who's suddenly found his voice: "Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. (I love this!) New York was his town, and it always would be."

"ROOTS" (1977) - Although, technically, this isn't a movie but a miniseries, it's one of the most important and definitive pieces about the central conflict of American history: slavery and its aftermath.

"REMEMBER THE TITANS" (2000) - Disguised as a feel-good football movie, "Titans" (based on a true story) showed a recipe for mending the raw wounds of our racial conflicts. It proclaimed that even in the ugliest chapters of our history, we will continue to look for happy endings.

"12 ANGRY MEN" (1957) - This intense drama demonstrates our once-unflappable faith in our criminal justice system. It presents the idea that no matter how bigoted and flawed our individuals might be, our system will arrive at justice.

"NORMA RAE" (1979) - Sometimes, our heroes and heroines come from the most unlikely places. In this powerful message film, a young single mother (Sally Field) embodies the strength of the American work force as she fights to unionize a textile mill.

"JEREMIAH JOHNSON" (1972) - This eloquent ode to the untamed West celebrates the trials of the early settlers and mountain men, hearty souls who tried to carve a bit of peace of mind in inhospitable places.

"SMOKE SIGNALS" (1998) - We stole the Indians' land and turned them into movie bad guys. But now Native Americans are telling their own stories on film. This funny and often moving adventure is about two young men who leave the reservation to make peace with their past.

"THE MUSIC MAN" (1962) - This wonderful musical makes the list not only because it's drenched in small-town Americana, but because it tells a classic American story - that of the con man who finds redemption.

"FAME" (1980) - Americans romanticize celebrity as if it were, in itself, a virtue. This energetic musical captures the quest for fame through the dramas of the talented young men and women at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts.

"FIELD OF DREAMS" (1989) - No list of American movies can be complete without a movie about our national pastime. This delightful film portrays baseball not as a sport but as something transcendent.

"THE GRAPES OF WRATH" (1940) - This must be included here if only for the names behind it: author John Steinbeck, director John Ford, star Henry Fonda. You don't get more American than those folks. This heart-wrenching adaptation of Steinbeck's classic Dust Bowl drama follows the Joad family as they trek to California in search of a better life.

Other contenders include: "Sullivan's Travels," "The Long Walk Home," "A League of Their Own," "Almost Famous," "The Patriot," "The Searchers," "Grand Canyon," "Breaking Away," "A River Runs Through It," "Inherit the Wind," "Meet John Doe," "Moscow on the Hudson," "Bird," "Dances With Wolves," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "State Fair," "The Great Santini," "Coming Home," "October Sky," "Matewan," "The Candidate," "All the King's Men," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "National Lampoon's
Vacation," "Smoke," "Erin Brockovich," "The Godfather," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Pearl Harbor," "Do the Right Thing," "What's Cooking?" "The Joy Luck Club," "Coming Home," "The Big Chill," "Places in the Heart," "Born on the Fourth of July," "West Side Story," "On Golden Pond," "Of Mice and Men," "Gone With the Wind," "Once Upon a Time in America," "Saving Private Ryan."

At 6:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

* Texas Chainsaw Massacre
* American History X
* Super Size Me
* No Holds Barred
* Purple Rain
* Halloween
* From Justin to Kelly

At 7:26 AM, Blogger Warren Epstein said...

Dude, that's a really sick list.

At 11:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


About the 'Salem Witchcraft Trials' in 17th century America.

At 4:42 AM, Blogger Chus said...

More information!: The Crucible (1996 film)


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