Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s (exceedingly difficult) question: In honor of our nation’s upcoming birthday, what is the movie that still makes you most proud to be an American? Or, for foreign critics: What film most compelling sells you on the promise of America’s potential?
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
I know there are movies that are more complex, but “Apollo 13” gets me every time. It begins with the cynical idea of an American Dream that’s already in the rearview mirror: Moon launches, once the pride of a nation, have become routine — yesterday’s news. But journalists swarm when the orbiting crew falls into jeopardy. That’s when the film pivots into can-do problem solving. I find this section beyond stirring. The movie says that being American is thinking on your feet and being creative. It’s an America of pocket protectors and slide rulers. “Apollo 13” makes an excellent double feature with “All the President’s Men,” which is basically about the same thing: scrappy problem-solving, with America’s prestige hanging in the balance.
Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Freelance for Film Journal, Film School Rejects
This is a strange question for me to answer, simply because I wasn’t born and raised an American. I’m Turkish and I moved here (to NYC) in July 2000. And after years on various different types of visas and permits (F1, H1-B, Green Card, you name it), I finally became an American citizen in 2014. I did so proudly, as America feels like a home to me as much as Turkey does. And I’ve lived here most of my adult life, so my identity is pretty evenly split between my Turkish roots and my chosen home.
This is all a very long intro into the simple fact that I grew up with a very idealized and manufactured opinion of what it means to be an American in the small southern Turkish city I was raised. I looked at America from afar with a naive fascination and longing. For starters, with films like “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Teen Wolf,” and TV shows like “Beverly Hills 90210,” I was convinced all American high schools were fun, resort-like places. Looking back, I realize they made me and my friends envious of “the American way” our lives didn’t mirror in the slightest. (Obviously, I now know things aren’t, um, quite as advertised.) Beyond that, I mostly associated America with Tom Hanks (no joke) and with values like decency, courage and justice in my teenage years, all thanks to “Philadelphia,” “Apollo 13” and “Forrest Gump,” which I still have a great amount of unapologetic affection for (whatever you just said about me under your breath, RIGHT BACK ATCHA.)
Now, as an almost 40-year-old adult who’s lived here for 17 years, the film that gives me goosebumps about American ideals (and the kind of pride I think you’re talking about) is “All The President’s Men.” Maybe partly because of its present-day relevancy, but I suspect mostly because it conforms to that “decency, courage and justice” I mentioned earlier. Despite all, I still associate America with these values and “All The President’s Men” aligns with them all.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” certainly isn’t the only film that makes me proud to be an American, nor is it the film that makes me most proud to be an American… hell, it’s not even directed by or about an American. But it’s way more fun than any Matthew Vaughn movie has a right to be, and it ends with the (incidental) death of President Barack Obama. His head pops clean off his neck with a puff of rainbow-colored smoke, making him one of millions upon millions of people who die in the film’s climactic explosion. While Vaughn insists that it’s not actually Obama (but, um, rather a completely generic black President of the United States with short, graying hair who’s played by an Obama lookalike), most people can’t help but make that leap. And most people didn’t give a shit. I love Obama, but his “Kingsman” death still makes for a hilariously shocking moment. In light of the ridiculous conservative outrage over the Public Theater’s recent performance of “Julius Caesar,” I can’t help but think fondly of “Kingsman” and remember that being an American means laughing at the same commentary that other countries might consider criminal.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic), Freelance for Little White Lies, The Film Stage
To this European writer, “Magic Mike XXL” feels like a very American movie and one that presents the United States under its better angles. The striptease industry itself, with its inherent superficiality and focus on money and sex, is like a tiny America. But, almost surprisingly, Gregory Jacobs presents this pure capitalist entertainment positively, highlighting it’s liberating nature and including a diverse cast to better represent his cosmopolitan nation. The narrative too is very modern American: very simple and fun, with no big success at the end, just fireworks!
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail
I hesitated quite a bit before participating in this particular survey, as my opinion of what makes me feel proud to be an American changes over time, and even within given years, depending on the current state of the nation. That state, in my mind, is not all that great at present, thanks to extremist forces on the right of the political spectrum that want to walk back and dismantle many of the great and hard-won social-justice achievements of the 20th century (and many other progressive policies, as well). Though in theory enshrined in our Constitution, the basic “blessings of liberty” that should have been granted to all citizens in equal measure were only (somewhat) shared with the non-white male population after many a vicious battle fought in the courts, the legislatures and even the streets. And so my current choice for a film that makes me proud to be an American comes out of my mindset of wistful nostalgia combined with anger and fear at what I see happening today.
Jeff Nichols’ 2016 “Loving” (which I reviewed at Hammer to Nail) tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, whose interracial marriage in Virginia – then against the law – led to the eventual barring of all anti-miscegenation laws across the land. It’s hard to believe those still existed only 50 years ago (almost within my lifetime), yet as the film makes clear, entrenched racism is a beast that releases its clawed grip most unwillingly. Starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, the film is a beautiful elegy to their love for each other and to the legal system that finally did the right thing. It shows America at its worst, but then at its best, a welcome antidote to the ugly face of resurgent hate we see under our current president.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for Nylon, the Guardian, Vulture
All of my favorite movies about America tend to portray the nation as cruel, dysfunctional and brutally unfair. The ones that paint America as a pretty nice place to live usually ring false to me, promising a wealth of opportunity that I’m not 100% convinced is really there. The U.S. doesn’t come out of Robert Altman’s “Nashville” looking all that rosy, and yet that may still be the portrait of America that makes me proudest. We are a big, fractious, ambitious country, and while not all of the characters’ criss-crossing ambitions are nobly founded, there’s enough sincerity behind some figures’ striving that I love the land that made them this way. I’ve always considered America’s greatest quality to be our capacity for self-reflection, and “Nashville” begins the great American tradition of wondering what’s wrong with us.
Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire
It’s big and loud and mostly nonsensical, but damn if it doesn’t put on one hell of a show, with rousing alien-punching and Bill Pullman-delivered speeches to spare. It’s America! It’s “Independence Day”!
Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance for The Guardian, Vanity Fair
I really like “The Right Stuff.” Weirdly, I find the cynical media manipulation storyline almost as inspiring as the derring-do.