The Fourth of July has historically been the day on which Americans reflect what it means to be an American and embrace all the country’s hearty traditions. That mostly calls for gorging on apple pie and baby back ribs (and whatever else is being cooked on the barbecue grill) in between watching the fireworks. It also might see Americans tuning in to whatever movie marathons are on television at the time. However, thanks to the endless array of channels and streaming services at the disposal of DIRECTV customers, they can craft their own movie marathons.
Here are some recommendations for what readers can enjoy to celebrate their patriotism.
‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ (1939)
Let this be an early warning that not every entry on this list is going to be a fun one. While Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is certainly rewarding and ultimately inspiring, it’s not exactly popcorn entertainment. It’s very much about a man proud to be an American but frustrated with an American justice system made up of politicians who seem to have forgotten what that means for themselves. An everyday citizen played by James Stewart hopes to remind politicians what it means to be an American when staring into the face of corruption and unlawfulness.
‘Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July’ (1979)
An oft-forgotten holiday tale, this is equal parts Christmas story and Fourth of July celebration. It may not have the same deeper meaning or complexity as most movies on this list (nor the length, as it is one of the shortest movies ranked here), but it works as something short and brief. Good for a family head who needs to put something on for the children or even just background fodder while they grill in the backyard.
‘Rocky IV’ (1985)
This is around the time when the Rocky franchise descended into over-the-top madness, with Rocky IV arguably being the most outlandish in the series yet at that point. It also ranks among the most fun and rewarding movies in the franchise, staying true to the patriotic roots of the series. In sticking to its extravagant tone, the movie certainly gets the most out of its patriotism while the biggest theme at hand is Russia vs. America. For all intents and purposes, a lot of things about this movie probably shouldn’t work or shouldn’t age well at least, but it does. It’s fun, entertaining and nonetheless inspiring.
‘An American Tail’ (1986)
When most readers think of Steven Spielberg’s finest achievements, movies that may come to mind are Jaws, the Indiana Jones franchise, Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan (which itself nearly made its way onto this list). However, one often overlooked cinematic achievement from Spielberg is one which he didn’t direct, but executive produced. He played a part in crafting the immigrant narrative in a way that can be easily understood by both children and adults. Although the topic of immigration is controversial, it is one that many people of different races, ethnicities and heritages can relate to. If someone never immigrated to America themselves, there’s a strong likelihood that their ancestors (parents, grandparents or great-grandparents) did. Spielberg said it himself to Harvard graduates in 2016, as recollected by The Hollywood Reporter: “We are a nation of immigrants.” An American Tail takes the classic immigrant story and simplifies it for the average person to understand through the eyes of a Jewish-Russian family of mice. A movie to get the whole family together for.
‘Born on the Fourth of July’ (1989)
In contrast with most entries on this list, this movie is less fun and more a thought-provoking commentary. It exists not to celebrate America but not necessarily to wholly criticize it, either. That is left for the viewer to decide. Born on the Fourth of July is as much a meditation on manhood as it is a meditation on what it means to be an American. That is what makes this movie so tragic. Ron Kovic (a real veteran turned anti-war activist, played by Tom Cruise) fights for his country for nothing in return but the loss of his legs and severe PTSD. After everything he’s lost, is he more of a man or more of an American? Has either identity been lost to trauma? Was any of it worth it? This one is for the heavy-thinking readers out there looking to chew on the complex nature of being an American.
‘Forrest Gump’ (1994)
Forrest Gump is an entertaining look at American history, as seen through the eyes of its title character. At the same time, the character in question subtly exemplifies what the American dream is all about. Forrest (Tom Hanks) is quite literally a simple man. For all intents and purposes, he’s an underdog with every disadvantage in the book. However, through hard work and dedication (and sometimes just dumb luck), Gump becomes a successful billionaire. He’s put in random, often difficult situations, but he makes the most of every scenario he finds himself in. He picks himself back up through his failures and maintains humility and humbleness through his success. It’s the American Dream exemplified by the simplified man.
‘Independence Day’ (1996)
Independence Day is the definition of a popcorn movie. Not all movies need a deeper meaning or demand a serious provoked thought. Some movies aren’t trying to be either. Some movies exist simply to be good fun. This one falls into that category. Granted, Bill Pullman’s iconic speech as President Whitmore launches this movie into a whole new stratosphere and is what makes this movie essential viewing. Outside of that, audiences can look forward to sillier (but nonetheless awesome) moments, such as Will Smith welcoming an alien to Earth with a punch to the face. Just check your brain at the door and enjoy the fireworks, just as the Fourth of July was intended to be celebrated.
‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (1997)
This one isn’t the most obvious choice for Fourth of July viewing. As the only horror movie on the list, it is certainly its most unique entry. While many readers may raise an eyebrow at what may be seen as a random addition to the list, it’s easy to forget that I Know What You Did Last Summer takes place on the Fourth of July. Still, it isn’t exactly of the same quality as a Spielberg production or a best picture winner, but that’s where the movie’s appeal comes from. Despite being rooted in the horror genre, the unintentional humor that can be found here was enough to inspire dozens of 2000s comedy spoofs, including Scary Movie. This is another movie that should be watched on Independence Day purely for fun and for a good laugh.
‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (2011)
On the surface, Captain America: The First Avenger is like any other superhero movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not to take anything away from those movies or fans who enjoy them, but they’re all simple popcorn movies for the most part. However, if readers dig deeper into the core of the film, they’ll find a movie about the endurance of the human spirit. Before Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is gifted with muscles and super strength, he already has the makings of a hero. Steve was always a small, scrappy underdog willing to fight until his last breath and fall onto a grenade for his country. If this isn’t a movie that speaks to the heart of America, then nothing is.
‘American Sniper’ (2014)
As uplifting as it can be to see Will Smith punch out an alien, the most inspiring stories are the true ones. The story of the late Chris Kyle is a prime example. Before being murdered in 2013, Kyle was a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper across four tours of the Iraq War, calculating 160 confirmed kills, per his book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. That same book would form the basis of this movie, starring Bradley Cooper in an absolutely heart-wrenching, intense performance. Much like Born on the Fourth of July, American Sniper analyzes how even the heroes of America struggle after serving their country, giving audiences a greater appreciation for their sacrifices.
It goes without saying that not everyone from every walk of life achieved the same freedoms at the same time. Many African Americans didn’t know freedom until slavery was abolished in 1865. Before that, Black slaves had to force their way out to freedom. This is where the story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad comes into play. For those looking for an alternative, but nonetheless inspiring perspective on history, look no further than Harriet. What makes this depiction of Tubman most notable is the Oscar-nominated portrayal by Cynthia Erivo, who brings humanity to a larger-than-life historical figure.
Speaking of historical figures, the Hamilton play has breathed a life of its own since it first hit Broadway in 2015. Any attempts to adapt it for the big screen were going to prove either difficult or controversial because of the play’s devoted following. So Disney went the next best route: bringing Broadway to millions of homes around the globe. All Disney did was place a camera in front of one of the play’s productions and let the original cast and crew work their magic. And lo and behold, magic unfolds. It’s a wholly catchy and gripping musical retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton and his part in the American Revolution. Besides putting a spotlight on one of America’s most important figures, it’s simply good fun to watch.
‘Top Gun’ / ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (1986 / 2022)
Some may consider this final entry to be cheating, considering that it’s not one entry, but two entries in one. However, there is no better way to enjoy either movie than with a double bill. Both are obviously patriotic, but in a different way as both stories serve different purposes. While Top Gun exists to glorify America at that present point in time of its release, Top Gun: Maverick glorifies what America used to be. As Military.com reflects, the first Top Gun played a huge part in both glorifying and spreading awareness for the Navy. Top Gun: Maverick piggybacks off the first film but tells an entirely new story about standing tall in the face of adversity. It’s about embracing and making peace with the past to pave the way for the future as Tom Cruise’s Goose takes on a mentorship role. It’s just as much about nostalgia, both for the ’80s and for a bygone era of America. Both are best appreciated when watched back to back.
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