Samuel Johnson said it was the last refuge of scoundrels, and if that’s true, then I predict a nation-wide crime wave and a week-long run on golden toothpicks and hairless cats, because at this time of year patriotism will not be denied. Refuse to partake of — or at least acknowledge — it at your political and gustatory peril. With that in mind, we offer a list of films that might satisfy those on the patriotic fence, those who prefer their patriotism (and their marshmallow salad) a little bittersweet. Like Mr. Johnson, I am not an American, and much of what I know about everything, including American patriotism, I learned at the movies; these films have taught me the most about the boons and the bummers involved in loving this country.
Many countries with historically subjugated populations have stories similar to that explored in 1989’s “Glory” (last year’s “Days of Glory” described the Algerians who fought for colonial France in WWII), but few are told with the sheer resonance of Edward Zwick’s Civil War epic. Following the true story of a group of black men who volunteered to serve in the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts through their harrowing experience as one of the first all-black units in the American military, “Glory” pulls few punches about perhaps the biggest welt on this country’s memory. It also suggests how the theoretical bedrock of its union — equality and indivisibility under God — withstood a critical moment in history. The triumphs of the unit — and the film — are both absolute and dubious; even 60 years later, black men were not allowed to fight with whites while defending their country in WWII. Denzel Washington became a star with his portrayal of an escaped slave turned soldier, and his performance stands up as both revelation and reminder of what a mannered and disappointing screen presence he has become.
Clint Eastwood was given a lot of credit for taking one of cinema’s oldest genre’s — the Western — and deconstructing its value system and the story it told Americans about their origins. To me, the really impressive thing about “Unforgiven” is that Eastwood reached all of those heady aesthetic and thematic destinations with a subtlety that never betrayed his narrative’s power. An actor who built a career on dispensing old-fashioned, remorseless, American ass-whuppery, Eastwood’s persona was often that of the anti-hero and even a kind of anti-patriot; whether playing a pale rider or a dirty cop, he made the “every man for himself” ethos sound like the most reasonable, patriotic response to a country ruled by violence and corruption. With “Unforgiven,” Eastwood revisits that idea in the town of Big Whiskey, and the toll of Little Bill’s (Gene Hackman) rather fascistic rule over its citizens. Eastwood’s Will Munney, trying to play it straight after a lifetime of thuggery, is drawn toward Big Whiskey’s predicament by a large bounty, but becomes involved in an attempt to essentially liberate the town and let its people live in peace. Taking place at a time when the founding ideals of American citizenry were still under review, and within a genre that could use a solid dose of bittersweet revision, even more so than his Iwo Jima films, “Unforgiven” poses a complex moral puzzle to the viewer, and the patriot.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Break out the rice rations, my fellow recessionaries! And while you’re at it, fire up a copy of John Ford’s perennial parboiler, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Back when the nation’s great novelists could turn around trenchant classics about the issues of the day in under a decade, John Steinbeck wrote the definitive novel on The Great Depression in 1939 and Ford had his adaptation set to go by the next year. The story of Tom Joad and his Oklahoma family, whose farming income has been obliterated by drought and the rise of mechanized agriculture, is a totemic example of American grit and perseverance in the face of adversity, both natural and man-made. Joad (Henry Fonda), an ex-con just released from prison for manslaughter, is out for some old-fashioned American self-invention, but circumstance has other plans. He breaks his parole to head to California, but American enterprise of a different sort makes it nearly impossible for him and his family to make a living, much less a home — even New Deal relief efforts can’t meet the need. When Joad and his fellow workers unionize and strike, an altercation leads him to commit another murder in desperate defense of his friend. Consigned to a fugitive life but inspired by the rewards of cooperation to fight oppression, he vows to strike out and spread the word with what has become one of the most famous and resonantly American speeches in film.
Meet John Doe (1941)
From its opening sequence, in which the words “free press” are literally chipped off an awning (and replaced with “a streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era”), Frank Capra’s 1941 film is a treatise on the decline of the American way. Barbara Stanwyck plays a newspaper reporter whose last hurrah, after getting caught in a wave of layoffs, is to fabricate a letter from “a disgusted American citizen” who promises to jump off of the roof of the city hall on Christmas Eve. Turns out it’s a story that plays well, and Stanwyck is called back and forced to cough up the author; they pay a homeless ex-baseball player (Gary Cooper) to be their John Doe, and give a distinctly Obama-esque, anti-political speech that says “something simple and real, something with hope in it.” Soon John Doe is mobilizing the masses with the simple message of tolerance, community and clean sweep in the government, and political jackals are making deals to mobilize his following for nefarious gains. Capra made a mini-genre of bittersweetly patriotic films, including “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but “John Doe” is his darkest creation. It would have been darker still had the eventual ending — with its invocation of the power of the people — not replaced the original, in which John Doe turned into the disgusted, despairing American citizen he was being paid to imitate, and took a flying leap.
“All the President’s Men” (1976)
GÃ¼nter Grass once wrote that the first job of the citizen is to keep his mouth open. Turns out Grass was a Nazi recruit who kept his mouth good and shut about that for over 60 years. Nevertheless, the sentiment stands, and everyone from Michael Moore to Rush Limbaugh has been using it to justify his or her work; sometimes the most patriotic thing you can do is take down the man in charge. In that spirit comes “All the President’s Men,” Alan Pakula’s version of the true story of Washington journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), whose intrepid reporting broke the Watergate scandal in 1975 and led to the resignation of President Nixon. Although it chronicles a dark hour in American history, Pakula’s film ultimately celebrates the triumph of truth over power, of two big-mouthed citizens over the corruption that had infected the country they loved.
Made one year before the American bicentennial, Robert Altman’s masterpiece finds 24 characters converging on Tennessee in search of what went from a dream to a birthright in a single generation: superstardom, whether in entertainment or politics. Even the term “country music” suggests it as the seat of the nation’s most patriotic anthems, and as such it holds much the nation’s disappointment and despair. Altman intertwines the lives and ambitions of singers, journalists, politicians, agents, gadflies and lovelorn trainwrecks in his deceptively free-flowing examination of the state of the union. A music festival and political rally taking place in Nashville over a weekend bring together a motley blend of ambition, frustration, elation and disillusion. There is real exhilaration in the concept of American opportunity, and equal darkness in that of American entitlement, and Altman pursues — at the micro level — the double helix of this country’s foundation as it was mutating, in the presidential office and across the world in Vietnam, into an abomination of itself. You can be whatever you want to be in Nashville — and America — Altman warns, but try not to choke on the buffet.
25th Hour (2002)
Spike Lee’s got both that big mouth GÃ¼nter Grass was on about and an unflinching director’s eye, and thank God for that. New York’s toughest lover has been sending ambiguous valentines to his hometown throughout his career, and while “Do the Right Thing” makes all of the passionate, sweat-soaked arguments of an ambivalent patriot, its post-9/11 sister film, “25th Hour,” balances them with a poignant maturity that mark Lee’s remarkable growth as a filmmaker. Monty (Ed Norton) is a drug dealer who wants one last night out before beginning a seven-year jail term. He’s not a monster or even an above-average parasite — he’s just an American: greedy, oblivious, comfortable. With his Puerto Rican girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), ethically tormented teacher buddy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and highrolling Wall Street friend (Barry Pepper), he attempts to come to terms with what his lifestyle has wrought. Conjuring the stunned spirit of wounded New York and the chaotic jumble of every conflicting culture, impulse and ethos that the city entails, Lee locates the country’s post-millennial dilemma in microcosm. In Lee’s emphasis on both Monty’s freedom to choose and the necessity of his choice, there is the suggestion of his ultimate salvation, and ours.
Rescue Dawn (2006)
When it was released on July 4th of last year, some observers noted the relative perversity of pairing Werner Herzog’s harrowing, starvation-addled P.O.W. movie with the weekend of fireworks and flag-waving; the only daze supposed to befall Americans on the Fourth is brought on by too much barbecue. And yet Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), despite his German birth, is in many ways the ultimate American, and certainly shows more elbow grease and optimism than the actual American soldiers he encounters in a prison camp after being shot down over Laos in 1965. Herzog liked the true story of Dengler — who eventually orchestrated a coup, escaped imprisonment and made his way to safety — so much that he told it twice, once as a documentary, and here as a feature. A volunteer pilot fighting with the Americans in Vietnam, Dengler never gave up hope that his unit would find him, and the final sequence, beginning with a Butterfinger that looks an awful lot like a golden ticket, foregoes the issue of the dastardly war behind all of Dengler’s trouble for a rockets-red-glare payoff that is no less affecting for its Capra-corniness.
Three Kings (1999)
“I don’t even know what we did here — can you tell me what we did here?” These lines, from Army Special Forces officer Archie Gates (George Clooney) in David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” sum up the supreme ambivalence with which the film treats the 1991 American invasion of Iraq. Two weeks away from his retirement and stationed in Iraq, Archie’s plan to use the map (found on an Iraqi POW by three other soldiers played by Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg and Spike Jonze) that could lead to millions in stolen gold bullion gets blown sideways by the civil war that erupted when American forces abandoned the anti-Saddam insurgents, leaving them to be slaughtered by the Republican Guard. Defiantly critical of American foreign policy, its conduct of Operation Desert Storm and its treatment of its soldiers, the film is nevertheless a champion of the decency and moral fortitude (despite the rather loose pendulum it seems to swing along) of the men in uniform; it’s decency that is posited as not just basic but distinctly American.
No End in Sight (2007)
In the fine tradition of documentary filmmakers like Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County U.S.A,” “American Dream”) and Frederick Wiseman (“Titicut Follies”) and a cool step away from the hotheaded breed of Moore and Spurlock comes Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight.” A proud member of the reformer school of patriotism, Ferguson’s love of what this country is supposed to be fueled a meticulous presentation of what its government has done, and become. A methodical chronicle of the six months following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ferguson gathered some bitterly, hauntingly disillusioned insiders to paint a picture of the critical errors that were made, errors that plunged both Iraq and the American military into unutterable chaos and destruction. Though the details are grisly and the outlook is hard to take, Americans can be proud that such a film can find a forum and a footing in an open society, and of the Marine who closes the documentary with the reminder that we can and must do better.
[Photos: “Glory,” TriStar Pictures, 1989; “Unforgiven,” Warner Bros. Pictures; “The Grapes of Wrath,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1940; “Meet John Doe,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1941; “All the President’s Men,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1976; “Nashville,” Paramount Pictures, 1975; “25th Hour,” Buena Vista Pictures, 2002; “Rescue Dawn,” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2006; “Three Kings,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999; “No End in Sight,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]