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Top Five American Historical Films

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Photo: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," courtesy Warner Bros.

In honor of Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-nominated "Lincoln," we take a look at the greatest American historical films of all time.

History and movies are well paired, particularly during award season. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which has grossed over $150 million, as well as “Hyde Park on Hudson,” are part of the great film tradition of films about politics and about history. Daniel Day-Lewis, almost a lock for Best Actor, is part of an industry tradition that recently included Colin Firth, in “The King’s Speech,” and Meryl Streep, in “The Iron Lady.” This year’s Tony Kushner-scripted movie about America’s political situation between 1861 and 1865 is one of the most gripping films ever made about the civil war. As we leave the holiday season behind, here are five other great films about American history to be thankful for:


5. “All The President’s Men” (1976)

Alan J. Pakula directs Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein) and Robert Redford (Bob Woodward) in this dramatic adaptation of Richard Nixon’s fall from power. Hoffman, in particular, is at the height of his powers as a reporter obsessed with following the story to its end. Watching it nowadays one wonders if there was ever a time when newspapers were powerful enough to bring down a President of the United States. Pakula also helmed The Parallax View, another great American political thriller with a convoluted, conspiracy minded plot, but “All The President’s Men” is a masterpiece and tragedy about American power and overreach.


4. “Oh Brother, Where Art thou?” (2000)

Written, produced and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen, this is one of the best films about the Great Depression. Starring George Clooney, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning, John Turturro and John Goodman, this film, scored, organically, with American folk music, is about chain gangs, treasure, robbery, selling ones soul to the devil in order to play good guitar and other all American past times. If you haven’t seen this movie, please do.


3. “The Patriot” (2000)

Much has been made of the whitewashing of slavery in this film – not its best selling point, to be sure — and much has been made of Mel Gibson afterwards. That having been said, flaws and all, The Patriot is one of the best contemporary retellings of the American Revolution and, particularly, the way in that war divided colonial society. Historians believe that roughly one-third of Americans supported the revolution. I cannot think of another film that expresses that difficult fact as thoughtfully as this one does. Nor has there been a film in recent memory that captures the uphill battle that the patriots fought in revolting against the British, at the time the world’s superpower, with only minimal help from the French. Chris Cooper, as Henry Burrell, does an amazing job as well.


2. “Malcolm X” (1992)

Spike Lee’s sprawling, magnificent “Malcolm X” is another American historical film that was looked over, unfortunately, by Oscar. Taking in much of the 20th century from the point of view of a complex, driven and principled African-American man, Denzel Washington gives the performance of a lifetime. The three hour and twenty minute running time goes by briskly as Spike takes us from the era of Pullman porters of Harlem jazz, of the rise of the Black Muslims and, towards the end, the Vietnam war. As Roger Ebert wrote, “Watching the film, I understood more clearly how we do have the power to change our own lives, how fate doesn’t deal all of the cards.” What could be more American than that?


1. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

Okay, the title is a bit off putting. But the performances – by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck and Sam Shepard and Mary-Louise Parker – are astonishingly good. Clocking in at 160 minutes, this is a richly drawn American film about outlaws and the thirst for fame (notoriety?). It could not have been made anywhere else but on this shore.

Brad Pitt, one of the best actors of his generation, gives us the ultimate Jesse James: rich, complex, criminal, possibly bipolar, yet all the time sympathetic. He should have won an Oscar for this role. This might be one of the best films ever made that few people have heard about. If you, like me, love history – particularly the history of the West and of railroads – watch this film via Netflix. Roger Deakins does an amazing job at cinematography, with his slow, majestic scenes of railroads and of the nineteenth century landscape.


What is your favorite American Historical Film? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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