Sure, you’ve locked your barbeque plans and you’ve picked out the best spot to watch fireworks, but somewhere during the Fourth of July weekend you’re probably going to indulge in that most American of traditions, watching a movie or two.
And there are plenty of films suited for the holiday to choose from, including old-fashioned flag-waving musicals like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” chant-inspiring sports triumphs to like “Miracle,” or the sci-fi spectacle of the on-the-nose titled “Independence Day.” To get an even fuller flavor of very American phenomena as depicted on cinema, here’s a sampling of some of the screen’s most engaging, entertaining and eclectic windows into patriotism, each paired with a complementary follow-up film.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)
Few screen actors personify the all-American Everyman as thoroughly as James Stewart — in his boyish aw-shucks prime here at age 31 — teamed with director Frank Capra (they’d reconvene for “It’s a Wonderful Life” seven years later). Stewart’s turn as Jefferson Smith, a naïve, well-intentioned scoutmaster-turned-senator forced to fight the dirty tricksters of the DC political establishment with nothing but the courage of his convictions, made him a star, and serves as welcome reminder that sometimes the little guy can prevail against the powers-that-be (Available to stream via rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and Vudu).
Double feature: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)
John Ford’s Western allegory, starring a more mature Stewart opposite John Wayne, explores very American themes of heroism through a darker frontier lens (Available to stream on Starz).
No conflict ever threatened to tear the nation asunder more painfully than the Civil War, and under Steven Spielberg’s masterful directorial hand, the precarious political maneuvering necessary to end the War Between the States comes to vivid life, along with the personal costs to the 16th president. Lincoln’s gentle, gregarious outer demeanor cloaks a fiery, resolute inner passion, played to perfection by Daniel Day-Lewis (Available to stream on Netflix).
Double Feature: “Young Mister Lincoln” (1939)
Director John Ford and star Henry Fonda’s portrait of the president’s early days as an attorney with a gift for oratory (Available to stream via rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and Vudu).
“Top Gun” (1986)
Despite its very 1980s, gung ho pedigree, director Tony Scott’s slickly crafted, turbo-edited ode to superior American aviation might and the cocky, sometimes troubled Navy pilots in the cockpit has aged surprisingly well — dogfights, volleyball matches, music video-style love scenes and all. Even the film’s jingoistic impulses are aimed at the Russians, now viewed as global baddies once again. And it’s Tom Cruise’s turn as Maverick, a defining moment in Reagan Era zeitgeist, will still have you feeling the need, the need for speed (Available to stream via rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and Vudu).
Double Feature: “Born On the Fourth of July” (1989)
Oliver Stone directs a de-glamorized Cruise as a disabled, disillusioned Vietnam vet in a moving portrait of the human cost of war (Available to stream via rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and Vudu).
“Hidden Figures” (2016)
American underdogs don’t come in purer form than the women of color who worked for NASA during the can-do crunch days of the Space Race, the country’s crowning achievement, which coincided with the tumultuous Civil Rights struggle. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe bring poise and poignancy to the unsung heroines of filmmaker Theodore Melfi’s revealing tale (Available to stream via rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and Vudu).
Double Feature: “Apollo 13” (1995)
Ron Howard’s portrait of American ingenuity in the midst of a life-and-death crisis where the fate of three astronauts is entwined with the hopes and dreams of an anxious nation, with another iconic screen Everyman, Tom Hanks, as the film’s literal and figurative mission commander (Available to stream on Starz).
“Private Benjamin” (1980)
A tired-and-true Hollywood premise — the hijinks of a woefully unprepared US military recruit — got a fresh new uniform when Goldie Hawn enlisted in the Army. Not only is Hawn a complete howl as her privileged New York princess comically careens through basic training, she also deftly handles the serious fare when faced with the toxically masculine realities of a less woke era (Available to stream via rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and Vudu).
Double Feature: “Stripes” (1981)
Bill Murray and Harold Ramis lead the military misfits in Ivan Reitman’s raucous, raunchy spin on the durable comedy genre (Available to stream via rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and Vudu).
“Captain America: The First Avenger “(2011)
Few screen conflicts are as visceral satisfying as watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s clean-cut, red-white-and-blue-clad superhero punch out Nazis in director Joe Johnston’s peppy take on the shield-wielding Avenger’s wartime origins. With some CG magic, Chris Evans is equally effective as the scrawny but stalwart Steve Rogers, a classic American underdog determined to serve his country at any cost, as he is in Cap’s more muscular incarnation (Available to stream on FXNow).
Double Feature: “Air Force One” (1997)
Who needs superheroes when you have a US president (Harrison Ford) kicking the butts of skyjacking terrorists in Wolfgang Petersen’s escapist thriller? (Available to stream on Showtime Anytime)
“The American President” (1995)
Before “The West Wing,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin brought his engaging “good government” vision to the screen with a romantic comedy twist: the heart of a widowed commander-in-chief (Michael Douglas) is captured by an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening) during that most heartless political process: his re-election campaign. Directed by Rob Reiner with his expected crowd-pleasing panache (Available to stream via rent or purchase on HBO Now/HBO Go).
Double Feature: “Wag the Dog” (1997)
Director Barry Levinson and screenwriter David Mamet’s much more cynical, downright hilarious look at absurdist political machinations to contain a presidential sex scandal (Available to stream via rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now and Vudu).