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It's not hard to pick patriotic movies on Independence Day. If there's anything the American movie industry is good at, it's celebrating the country it's based in, from military spectacles to tributes for great heroes to the "shoot 'em up" action movies we excel at. You can watch Jaws or Bridge on the River Kwai or Top Gun or a Busby Berkeley musical, and all of them ought to give you a swelling of American pride in your heart.
So we decided to make it a little complicated in our discussion of patriotic movies this Fourth of July. Imagine this. You're challenged with sending a probe out into space to explain America to some alien species that has never heard of us. Assume that the basics of what humanity is, what countries are, etc. have been explained somewhere else. This is just a challenge to get across the idea of America-- as a country, as an ideal, as a place where movies are made-- to someone who has never heard of it. To do so, you're allowed to ship the entire works of a single filmmaker… along with the filmmaker themselves. So not only do the movies have to speak for themselves, but you can get the man or woman themselves, with either their big personality or their own ideas about their work to help explain this weird country.
Who would you pick? The obvious list of great American directors come to mind, and any of them would be great picks-- John Ford gets the iconography and idealism of the West better than just about anybody, Frank Capra defines the spirit of optimism and community values, and Steven Spielberg has absorbed the decades of films that came before him to make some of the most beloved American films of all time. You can go historical, picking pioneer D.W. Griffith or English immigrant Charlie Chaplin, or modern-- what screams "America" louder than the rippling flags in Michael Bay's action scenes?
It's a tough question, and one we've enjoyed chewing over ourselves. Check out responses from four of us, and then jump into the comments to share your own picks-- along with any particular movies you think are just right for this holiday. Happy Fourth of July everyone! Get outside and grill something-- but come back inside and watch a movie with us, too.
Mack's pick: John Hughes
That jittery impulse to just leave you get most of the way through your senior year of high school when you just can’t take it anymore. The nervous worry you get as a child when a weird relative is staying in your house. The irrational anger and need to swear you get after continually being delayed at the airport. John Hughes is the most American director, not because he’s the loudest or the flashiest or because he includes the most fireworks or montages to the troops, he’s the most American because his filmography gives voice to all the little eccentricities and emotions that make the American experience wonderful and frustrating and downright hilarious.
Eric's pick: Martin Scorsese
If capturing the spirit of the country and what it truly means to be a citizen is what determines a filmmaker as a quintessential American director, then Martin Scorsese is certainly more than qualified – he just happens to explore the darker side of what that means. Over the course of his 30 year career he has dug into not only some of the most important time periods of this nation – from the traumatic post-Vietnam era seen in Taxi Driver to the fractured and violent mid-19th century in Gangs of New York – but also the incredibly potent idea of the “American Dream” and how it can be devastatingly corrupted, portrayed in films like Goodfellas and Casino. Scorsese’s America perhaps isn’t the way all of us want to see our country, but that doesn’t make the perspective any less vital.
Sean's pick: Oliver Stone
If we’re being honest, the only answer is Oliver Stone. Trained at NYU and influenced indefinitely by his tours of duty through the Vietnam War, Stone often challenges America to improve by shining a harsh spotlight on our nation’s ugliest mistakes: The Vietnam conflict (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July); Watergate (Nixon); our financial corruptions (Wall Street); and our presidential shortcomings (JFK, W.). Dismissed, often, as a conspiracy nut, Stone’s actually an Ivy League dropout who criticizes because he cares. And his body of work runs the gamut of America’s varied interests, from politics and history to football, rock music and 24-hour news coverage of psychopathic criminals. Stone and his films act as a mirror held up to American society. Who’s fault is it that we don’t often like what we see?
Katey's pick: James Cameron
An immigrant who arrived in this country with dreams of making something big and important. A young man who started at the bottom of his industry only to change it forever, making three films that were the most expensive ever, and all of them going on to change our ideas of just how big a movie could be. James Cameron is synonymous with America's love of all things big and flashy, but his films aren't just about size-- they're about underdog dreamers (Titanic's Jack Dawson, Terminator 2's John Connor) trying to get somewhere better, about people revered not for their wealth but their skills (The Abyss's Bud Brigman, friggin' Ripley), about scrappy survivors who will not only defeat the enemy, but make a better world afterwards (Avatar is basically the American Revolution in space!) Born in Canada, but made by America, James Cameron is our country in all its great and ridiculous glory.
Which director best defines America?
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