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Five Quintessentially American Movies for The Fourth of July

It’s been almost a quarter of a millennium since a handful of men wearing wigs and breeches put their names to a bit of parchment that bore the heading “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America.” That little declaration launched what George Washington called “the last great experiment,” and what an experiment it’s been.

But it hasn’t been one long string of uninterrupted greatness, as much as we Americans might like to think it has. The United States has had its ups and downs. And it’s not always been as righteous as our lofty founding documents would make it seem: Ironically, the majority of the folks who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves.

Still, we Americans have a lot to be proud of. And while our own Kennedy Unthank walked us through a bit of American History last Independence Day, I thought I would take a different tack and explore some movies that show us what it means to be “American”—not in some high-falutin’ sense of the word, but rather in what we’ve achieved, what we value and what we just kind of like.

So with that, here are five movies that say something about what our nation is, what it’s become, and perhaps what it can still be.  

Oh, and a quick note: Even though they landed on a Plugged In list, these films don’t get an unqualified stamp of approval from Plugged In. No movie is perfect, and you’ll know better than we do what’s appropriate for you and your family. Before watching these films, check out our Plugged In reviews or (for the older films that might not have reviews) do a little poking around yourself.

42 (PG-13, 2013)

I don’t want to hear it from football fans: Baseball is still America’s pastime—as quintessentially American as, well, hot dogs and apple pie and stuff. And what other major American sport is played on Independence Day, anyway? Plus, if you squint a little, you can practically see the history of America itself written on its records and rosters.

Case in point: Jackie Robinson, aka the guy who broke baseball’s color barrier and did so with bravery, humility and almost unworldly skills. The film 42, starring the late, great Chadwick Boseman, chronicles Robinson’s fight to join the Major League’s Boys of Summer. And while Adam Holz reminds us the film comes with its own rooted-in-history set of problems—racial attitudes and language that reflects those attitudes—42 is an eye-opening, entertaining movie.

Brooklyn (PG-13, 2015)

America is a nation of immigrants, and Hollywood has depicted the stories of those immigrants frequently—from the heartbreaking beauty of Minari (which we featured in a blog last month) to the very different sort of heartbreak found in Scarface (which we’ll likely never feature anywhere).

But for those looking for a sweet, faith-tinged take on someone coming to a new land looking for a better life, Brooklyn may fit the bill. Starring Saoirse Ronan, who was nominated for an Oscar for this role, the story focuses on a young woman sent from her impoverished Irish home in 1952 to work in a New York department store. And while she misses her homeland terribly, she grows to like, then love her new home. And she finds someone to love as well. Parents should be mindful of some pre-wedlock sensuality and some foul language. But our reviewer Bob Hoose called it a “simple, sweet story,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Captain America: The First Avenger (PG-13, 2011)

This feels too easy. Yes, this film features someone named Captain America. Yes, it takes place during World War II, which most Americans would feel is a bright spot on the country’s historical ledger. But this film comes with two other major American elements, as well. One, it features a superhero, and a superhero is a homegrown, archetypic folk hero for us Yanks—akin to King Arthur and Robin Hood in Britain, perhaps. Oh, and stuff gets blown up here, too. And we Americans love to watch things explode—especially on the Fourth of July.

And that’s not all. Steve Rogers starts off as a weak-bodied, little-regarded reject when the film begins. But inside? The guy’s got all the courage and idealism and heart you could ask for: He becomes part of a scientific experiment that creates the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s moral center. Is the film violent? Of course. Does it have other problems? Sure. But as far as superhero flicks go, this is milder than most. Americans love a good underdog story, too—and this makes for a great one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (PG-13, 1962)

For nearly a century, the United States’ most powerful export was … movies. And what’s the most American movie genre? Why, the Western, of course. Rooted in the western United States in a (highly romanticized) land filled with heroes and villains and moral dilemmas aplenty, the Western film defined America, both home and abroad, for generations.

While scores of top-shelf Westerns could’ve been pulled for this list, many of the classics can be problematic when looked at through a modern lens—and modern Westerns can come with their own sorts of problems. So I’d like to point you to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a Western that goes deeper than just a main-street shootout or a runaway wagon. This one centers on a time when the Wild West was becoming a little less wild, and law and order were starting to make their presence felt. Starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart—two paragons of Hollywood Americana—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance reminds us that, while gunning down a bad guy might feel good, real justice is rarely found that way.

To Kill a Mockingbird (NR, 1962)

Scout Finch is growing up in Maycomb, Alabama, in the early 1930s. And her father—a poor, principled attorney named Atticus—has elected to defend a Black man in court. This is dangerous business: The man, Tom Robinson, has been accused of raping a white woman, and racial tensions are running high. Atticus’ decision puts him and his family in some serious danger. But Atticus (played by Gregory Peck) doesn’t flinch from what he sees as his sacred duty. And in so doing, he becomes one of America’s greatest cinematic (and literary)  heroes.

To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t a pretty movie. It deals with a heinous alleged crime and focuses on some abhorrent racial attitudes. This film doesn’t look at a bright spot in American history; it looks at a dark one. And yet, in the midst of that darkness, Atticus Finch reminds us that we can always be better. He reminds us that the right way forward is rarely the easy way. We Americans like to see ourselves as principled and just. We like to think of our country as what Ronald Reagan once called a “shining city on a hill.” Too often we fall short of that. But Atticus reminds us that, when we set our minds and hearts to it, we can be a shining beacon ourselves—illuminating our small worlds and encouraging others to do the same.

We’ve barely scratched the surface, I realize. But I hope this whets your appetite. And have a wonderful, and reflective, Independence Day

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

4 Responses

  1. Here are more good suggestions for the list: “Glory” (1989), “Saving Private Ryan”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Lone Survivor”, “American Sniper”, “13 Hours” and “Hacksaw Ridge”.

    1. I honestly wasn’t prepared for just *how* violent Hacksaw Ridge was when I went to see it. It was an excellent movie with an excellent, largely pacifistic message that openly questions a lot of the “gung-ho” narratives that were in play then and are even treated as necessary in some churches nowadays, but the movie’s intensely graphic displays of death and destruction were what I would consider gratuitous (as with Gibson’s own dramatization of the Christ but to an even greater extent). For anyone planning to see it, I’d exercise extreme caution and bar any children or sensitive viewers from the viewing room.

  2. It’s good of you to feature films like “To Kill A Mockingbird” here, solemnly reminding us that the notion of ‘American freedom’ was inaccessible to many Americans for a long time.

    “We Americans like to see ourselves as principled and just. We like to think of our country as what Ronald Reagan once called a “shining city on a hill.” Too often we fall short of that.”

    This is a very good quote. The ‘city on a hill’ quote hearkens back to Matthew 5:14. When Jesus said those words, it called us to uphold a high moral standard that, too often, American history has fallen far short of.

  3. I thought of “Forrest Gump”. Many people have been criticizing this movie in recent years (Jenny is viewed as a “gold digger” villain), but I disagree. She came from an unstable, abusive background. Throughout the movie, she and Forrest deal with some issues that are still part of American life.