“Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” Columbia Pictures

America is a story. As much as any nation in history, America has always been invested in the story it’s telling, in the myths and images it wants to be known by. And no offense to literature, painting, music and the other arts, but the invention of cinema proved that there’s no medium more effective at myth-making than the movies.

That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story. A country’s just doing it on a grander scale. And casting the daily scuffle of life as the newest logical and inevitable chapter in an overarching narrative is not only natural, but sort of hopeful, indicating an optimistic belief that there’s a larger, more orderly plot in motion than it might otherwise seem.

The problem is that the American story is too broad and deep and diverse to be summed up in one movie, or one narrative. Looking at someone’s list of “the most patriotic movies” is to see what events, individuals, movements and forces that person views as essentially “American”— and which ones are lopped off for the sake of mythology. So on this Independence Day, let’s look at some of those all-American classics and what they’re really saying.

“Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” is everyone’s go-to idealistic, “pure” American movie. Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff Smith is a literal Boy Scout whose almost accidental elevation to the corridors of power sees him first disillusioned, then defiant, as the neophyte senator filibusters his way into a near coma in order to lecture his fellow lawmakers about how money and power have eaten away at America’s soul. Now, I could harp on the very real political realities of those systematically oppressed by the very system Smith holds up as exemplary (women, people of color, LGBTQ folks), but I’ll let director Frank Capra’s 1939 drama slide with a deep sigh of period recognition. However, that the feel-good climax of the film turns on a corrupt lifetime politician (always excellent Claude Rains) rushing to the impassioned rescue after Smith’s words provoke a weepy crisis of conscience is the sort of secretly damaging myth that fuels much of the naïve public debate today. The system Smith has such passionate faith in was designed to be tilted only one way, and the people who most benefit from its inequalities need to be voted out to right it. Waiting for bad people to admit the error of their ways, as we’re seeing now, is the sort of placating fairy tale that keeps things from changing.

Alternate recommendation: “City of Hope.” Director John Sayles’ 1991 drama uses a sprawling cast to examine how the interconnectedness of diverse people in one American city offers both impediment and, yes, hope for change. Joe Morton (“Scandal”) excels as an idealistic young politician who, unlike Stewart’s Smith, learns that hard work, sacrifice and even compromise are the only ways to incrementally root out the injustice embedded in every layer of American society.

The late, great, all-American ham George C. Scott will forever be linked to his Oscar-winning title role in “Patton.” And he should be, as his rip-roaring, fire-snorting turn as WWII General George S. Patton is an all-time star performance, his first appearance, expounding upon the nature of service and patriotism in front of a massive American flag, marking a true tour de force of American cinema. It’s also something of a shell game, as the screenplay (co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) posits that only a maverick, gung-ho, charismatic savior can truly accomplish anything. The film’s Patton is a strutting, soldier-slapping contradiction, a heroic rebel in service of a massive military machine, and the film did more to propagate the idea that crudity and bluntness denote absolute, flag-waving American truth more than any silly book-learning or thoughtful, nuanced deliberation. (I refrain here from drawing any parallels with the current occupant of the White House.)


Alternate pick: “M.A.S.H.” From the same, Vietnam War-ravaged year (1970), Robert Altman’s still-savage and hilarious dark comedy mines the same “rebel equals hero” narrative, but from the grimy, bloody bottom. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould’s front-line surgeons buck every rule the military’s got as they patch up the shredded soldiers sent to their mobile army hospital. Unlike “Patton’s” Patton, however, their hijinks serve as a constant reminder that there’s precious little glory for regular soldiers, and even less in using war for self-aggrandizement or windy myth-making. Instead of slapping soldiers, they slap surgical dressings on young men whose sacrifices the vainglorious “Patton” views as simply necessary collateral damage.

I love “Miracle”– the rousing 2004 recreation of that time the U.S. Olympic hockey team improbably beat the seemingly invincible Russian national team –pretty much unreservedly. Kurt Russell is his understated best as gruff but loving coach Herb Brooks, and, as someone just the right age to have thrilled to the team’s beyond-underdog victory, I get goosebumps just thinking about the ending. Still …

Alternate pick: “Moneyball.” Sports are nearly as adept at myth-making as the movies are. But, again, myths are manipulative things, and if “Miracle” was about making America an underdog by finding the one sport Americans weren’t that good at, “Moneyball” is about an actual underdog finding a way to win on an inherently unfair playing field. Brad Pitt is great as real-life Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, a failed former can’t-miss baseball prospect who’s turned his own painful experiences with failure into a lifelong quest to deconstruct the reasons why the big business of baseball is rigged for the rich at the expense of the poor. (Like the small-market A’s.) Berated, mocked and belittled by everyone in the business, Beane’s ingenious use of player analysis sees him fashioning a diverse winning team of the undervalued, overlooked and prejudged. As far as all-American feel-good stories go, that’s about as American as it gets.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

“Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt Columbia Pictures

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