It’s been a rough millennium, to say the least, for the good ol’ U.S. of A. Tensions are running high, rifts are widening, prices are up all over, and it’s hot as blazes in most places. We can’t even have fireworks displays in some places because of the supply chain shortage and all the fire hazards! How, pray tell, are we supposed to celebrate America’s birthday if we can’t blow stuff up real good??
Why, we do what we always do: turn to our filmed entertainment. Below are five thoughtful movies and TV shows to celebrate the Fourth of July this year and hopefully remind us of our shared values. And yes, there are explosions.
The Right Stuff (1983)
An epic production that earned great reviews and eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, The Right Stuff never became the hit that Warner Bros. was hoping for, perhaps due to its almost arthouse sensibility and poetic visuals, which were perhaps a little too poetic for audiences during a very commercial time for movie making. The movie chronicles the early days of the American space program when the Cold War was particularly frigid and the U.S. was devoting untold treasure to competing with the Soviets in developing space and military technology. Well-known actors like Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, and Dennis Quaid play the brave test pilots who took the crazy risks that made it all possible. Those that weren’t killed became the Mercury Seven astronauts, the first men in space.
The Right Stuff still features some of the best flight footage ever shot. Top Gun: Maverick recently paid homage to the masterpiece in its opening scene, which echoes the famous sequence in which Chuck Yeager (Shepard) becomes the first person to break the sound barrier (to complete the homage, Ed Harris is even on hand as a Navy admiral). Maverick surely also took inspiration from the movie’s uncomplicated notions of American heroism. As The Hollywood Reporter said at the time, “The Right Stuff emerges as the picture of the year, one that its producers can be proud of, the industry can be proud of, and which Americans can be proud of. Why? Because for once Americans, in their modesty, are shown as heroes, and heroes that we can all identify with.”
You can stream The Right Stuff on HBO Max and rent it on other digital platforms.
The Pacific (2010)
While it never quite got the attention of its forerunner, Band of Brothers, The Pacific remains one of the most harrowing evocations of war ever put on screen. Band of Brothers was surely great in its own right, but it also benefited from a national wave of nostalgia about World War II, which included patriotic war movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (both 1998), along with celebratory books like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers (upon which the miniseries was based) and Citizen Soldiers. Band of Brothers also debuted two days before 9/11 and it became a rallying point for Americans to come together against a common enemy.
Nine years and two “forever wars” later, the appetite for American military power in the world had diminished considerably, which may explain why The Pacific never quite caught on in the public consciousness. But as a document that visualizes the experience of island hopping conquest and combat for American men fighting the Japanese — as well as a dramatization of how fierce, bloody, and terrible that fighting was — The Pacific is incomparable, and a more riveting experience than the lyrical The Thin Red Line, which covers similar territory. Americans often disagree with the political goals and ambitions of the leaders that send soldiers to fight. But at the end of the day, our countrymen — often conscripted against their will — still bled out on foreign shores for our freedom. The Pacific both honors their experiences and gives them vivid, stunning life.
You can stream The Pacific on HBO Max and rent it on other digital platforms.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
“I have today’s forecast for you … hot!” exclaims the local DJ, Mr. Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), during his morning broadcast. Unfortunately, it’s only going to get hotter, both in terms of temperature and the simmering racial tensions in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But this episodic narrative chronicling one day in an interracial neighborhood is hardly just suffering and tragedy, even though it ends with one. There is relief too, as kids scamper through the gushing water of a hydrant, neighbors crack open frosty beers on their stoops, and a man rubs ice cubes on the body of his lover.
Spike Lee’s classic is one of the great summer movies, partially because the heat is so palpable. Lee wanted his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson to evoke Lawrence of Arabia, and he more than succeeds, drenching the film in deep oranges and yellows that are a natural match for all the saturated primary colors and neon that characterized late 198os fashions. Do the Right Thing may be famous for its depiction of violence but there is a lot of joy in it as well as reminders of the simple pleasures of a diverse community. It’s a celebration of an America that is made for all of us, no matter where we come from.
You can rent Do the Right Thing on Apple TV and other digital platforms.
The Americans (2013-2018)
Despite running for six seasons on F/X and earning consistent raves as one of the best shows on television, The Americans was never much of a popular success. Not surprising, given that its spy thrills are more cerebral than visceral — less James Bond and more John le Carré. The shows stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, Soviet agents masquerading as everyday Americans living in a D.C. suburb in the early 1980s (one of the most dangerous eras of the Cold War). The twist is that the couple is so deeply embedded in their covert operation that even their children don’t know that their parents are spies … and killers.
Well, at first anyway. Once their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) learns the truth, the show develops fascinating new depths. What do you do when your parents are sworn to live and die for Mother Russia and you’re an American teenager through and through? You can’t exactly lean on your friends for support. The show brilliantly uses the premise to both criticize and celebrate American culture and values. Even Phillip eventually admits that living in a big house and driving a hot new Camaro beats the hell out of the lifeless gray gulag behind the Iron Curtain. In other words, while our country is far from perfect, many of us have been luckier than most.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
I concede that some people don’t want a history lesson after gorging themselves on grilled pig in the sun all day, and may instead prefer some good old-fashioned rah-rah jingoism and blowing-stuff-up. Fine, but I’m still not recommending Independence Day, which remains a terrible movie. Clear and Present Danger, in which Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) tells the President he won’t lie to Congress about his secret war (yay for scruples!) is still the best adaptation of Tom Clancy, but even that thriller is too slow for today’s action audiences.
So, then there’s Marvel. The Winter Soldier is the best MCU movie after Thor: Ragnarok and the most thoughtful Marvel exploration of American power and constitutional values. It also contains some of the best action. In what producer Kevin Feige described as a “political thriller,” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) works to unravel a conspiracy that goes to the highest levels of the government. In a homage to his classic paranoid thrillers of yore (Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, Sneakers, Spy Game) Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official who may not be what he seems. Like all good movies that question the use of American power, Winter Soldier sets up a thematic debate about whether freedom or “security” at the cost of basic rights is better for democracy. And, well, like all good movies that question the use of American power, it comes down firmly on the side of freedom. Happy Fourth, y’all!
You can stream Captain America: The Winter Soldier on Disney+ and rent it on other digital platforms.