Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Based on the Broadway show of the same name, '1776' is a reasonably faithful retelling of the events that led to the writing and the signing of the Declaration of Independence ... except that Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson break into song every 15 minutes or so. Although this will probably turn off the sad souls who don't like a good musical, the film is a quietly incredible experience, celebrating the American Revolution while never sugarcoating the compromises that the founding fathers had to make to secure independence. For its first half, '1776' is a joyous, hilarious musical romp with just a twinge of history, setting you up for the surprisingly challenging, morally compromised conclusion that treats the events of July 4, 1776 with an impressive amount of weight.
Once you've seen the Continental Congress sing and dance their way to revolution, you'd think you'd seen the silliest movie ever made on the subject. But you'd be wrong. No sane movie fan would call 'The Patriot' a good movie, but for the movie fan with a six pack of beer in his belly, a hot dog in each hand and a sky full of fireworks exploding over his head? In such a charged and altered state, watching Mel Gibson murder his way through scores of British soldiers to avenge his dead family and single-handedly win America's freedom is quite the experience. Loud, stupid and unbearably cheesy, 'The Patriot' is the 'Armageddon' of patriotic movies. It's junk, but what junk!
'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'
After all of the singing and Redcoat-slaying, it's probably time to tone things down and jump forward 163 years for a simpler and more classic experience. Made with his typical blend of melodrama and humanity, Frank Capra's 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' is one of the best films ever made on the subject of democracy in action, with its climactic, heroic filibuster sequence taking on renewed power, considering recent events in the political arena. As the idealistic Senator Jefferson Smith, the great James Stewart is ideal as the good man who takes on a corrupt Congress, reminding all of us that, yes, a single person can make a difference. Smith's blind hopefulness in the face of oppression mimics that of the film -- they both believe that the basic goodness of the nation will ultimately triumph over darkness. It's a sentiment that feels a little hokey today, but it's a sentiment that needs to be true.
'All the President's Men'
While 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' focused on a politician fighting and overcoming injustice in the government, Alan J. Pakula's 'All the President's Men' tells the story of how two men took down a president. Anyone who ever opened a history textbook knows the basic story of journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose investigative skills contributed to the downfall and resignation of Richard Nixon, but 'All the President's Men' transforms their tale into marvelous, massively entertaining cinema. Come for the thriller, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, stay for the story of two men exercising their rights to fight and destroy a corrupt system. 'All the President's Men' may not be the most upbeat and optimistic movie to watch on the 4th of July, but it's a reminder that things have been dark before, and that American and its citizens have managed to push through the rough patches.
After two movies dealing with brave men fighting political corruption, watch something a bit simpler. Something a bit more "Ra-ra! Go America!," if you will. There is no movie more up to the task than 'Independence Day,' a film that deals with an alien invasion of Earth and still manages to make the whole thing all about an American holiday. There's no need to go into details here since everyone in the world has seen 'Independence Day' (and is probably planning to watch it again anyway), but you really should be reminded that this is the movie where the President of the United States gets in a fighter jet and personally leads the final assault on the alien fleet. What? How? Why? 'Cause 'Murica.' No wonder, Fox is planning 'Independence Day 2' with hopes for churning out an 'Independence Day 3.'
What is the "American Dream"? Over the years, it feels like it's been twisted and contorted into something ungainly and ugly. People will tell you that the American Dream is about getting rich and famous, being the absolute best and ruining all who oppose your march to unparalleled success and wealth. Interestingly, that's the American Dream painted in the increasingly dire 'Rocky' sequels, but the gentle, miraculous first film paints a more realistic and moving picture the common man/woman can hope to achieve. Everyone knows that Rocky Balboa loses the climactic boxing fight with Apollo Creed, but that doesn't matter. What does matter is that Rocky gives it his all and achieves a personal triumph that is more valuable than any belt, trophy or paycheck. 'Rocky' is about what happens when an individual makes a concerted effort to change his life for the better and gets there through hard work, determination and a little help from his friends. There's a reason 'Rocky' takes place in Philadelphia -- there has never been a more purely American movie.
'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'
After all of the hopes and dreams and politics the previously mentioned films offer, it's time for a massive change of pace. The United States is still a young nation when compared to our allies around the world, so our myths and legends are still taking shape. Countries like Germany and China can fill entire books with folklore and ancient tales, but the USA is just getting started. Still, that doesn't mean that the United States doesn't have its fair share of legends and the idea of cannibalistic families eating tourists in the deep South is as pure of an American legend as anything. 'The Texas Chainsaw' massacre may be a left-field choice for a 4th of July marathon, but no horror film has had a deeper and more resonant impact on the American psyche. Because now, everyone just knows, deep down in their psyches, that chainsaw-wielding madmen lurk in the heart of Texas. Europe has werewolves and vampires and the United States has Leatherface.
Has there ever been a better straightforward war film than 'Saving Private Ryan'? The question is purely rhetorical, but few World War II movies have been as popular and powerful as Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning epic, which feels like a definitive picture of the American involvement in the biggest armed conflict of all time. Although a touch too sentimental in its opening and closing scenes, which can be removed entirely without harming the film, 'Saving Private Ryan' balances the sheer horrors of war with the bravery and determination of the men fighting it, making it the rare war film that refuses to glorify combat without condemning it. At its best, 'Saving Private Ryan' is a harrowing and brutal portrait of a generation that died saving the world.
While 'Saving Private Ryan' is about the men on the front lines, 'Lincoln' is about a very different war altogether. A fascinating counterpoint to 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' Spielberg's look at the final months of Abraham Lincoln's presidency examines how generally good people have to wheel and deal through the political game to combat injustice. Capra and Stewart told a story of how one good man could stand up to evil and corruption, but here, Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis examine how a good man needs to play just as dirty as his rivals to get the job done. That sounds more pessimistic than it really is, with the film acting as a showcase for the versatility of an endlessly flexible political system. Anyone can bend it, so it's up to the good guys to find a way to bend it more.
'Team America: World Police'
Ready to end your July 4th marathon with a cry of "America! F*CK YEAH!"? Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 'Team America: World Police' is simultaneously a scathing indictment and raucous celebration of the United States, inviting viewers to snicker at the USA's follies while unironically singing along with its awesomely bombastic songs. A Michael Bay-ish action movie coated in a thick coat of self-awareness and acted out with marionettes, this is easily the strangest film on the list and probably one the most bizarre films to ever make it into theaters. No one is safe in this film, with every group, entity and system of beliefs as just another target for the film's crosshairs. If nothing else, it's a reminder that the Untied States is a place where people are able to make movies as bizarre, crude and angry as 'Team America: World Police.'