On the other hand, there's a sequence in 1969's Easy Rider in which Jack Nicholson, as liberal lawyer George Hansen, explains to hippie Dennis Hopper why the latter's very presence rankles the country yokels who repeatedly cross his path. "What you represent to them is freedom... That's what it's all about. But talking about it and being it; that's two different things. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free cuz then they're gonna get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they're gonna talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it's gonna scare them." By the end of the film, Nicholson, Hopper and fellow biker Peter Fonda are all dead, killed by the same sort of mental midgets who even today practice bigotry and intolerance while wrapping themselves in a blood-soaked American flag.
Welcome to the two sides of the same coin: The United States of America, a magnificent land that repeatedly manages to squander its greatness. How can a nation that placed a man on the moon also have placed an entire race in shackles? How can a country that prides itself on its citizenry's right to freedom of speech find so many ways to silence dissenting voices?
This duality hasn't been lost to those in the film capital. Ever since its inception, cinema has frequently had its finger on the country's pulse, creating works that alternately praise and condemn this great land of ours. Here, then, are glimpses at the nation's Jekyll and Hyde persona, broken up into quintessentially American topics that reflect the USA in all its complex facets.
Sports America loves its sports, and why not? There's the indomitable spirit of rugged individuals who don't know the meaning of the word "quit." There are the religious connotations of a practice based on faith, historical relevance and, yes, even the occasional miracle. There are the underdogs and the outcasts, the beaming good guys and the surly bad boys, the comeback kids and the perennial champions. In short, sports can be a metaphor for life itself, and nowhere is that more evident than in the superb Bull Durham (1988), in which the world of minor-league baseball serves as a launching pad for a witty, insightful movie that tackles love, sex, philosophy and other major-league musings.
Our love of sports is so pure that it's like a blow to the system when there's even a whiff of corruption surrounding any sporting event. Boxing films like The Set-Up (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956) particularly focus on the illegal activities taking place behind the scenes, but for a real wallop upside the head, there's Eight Men Out (1988), John Sayles' meticulous recreation of the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal that rocked the nation. In Sayles' view, the fat-cat owners are equally at fault as the actual Chicago White Sox players who allegedly threw the World Series, though there's enough shame to go around. John Cusack, David Strathairn and, as Shoeless Joe Jackson ("Say it ain't so, Joe"), D.B. Sweeney head the fine ensemble of a film about Americans who momentarily forget that not even the smell of money can compete with the taste of victory.
Class Struggle¨ In Preston Sturges' comedy classic Sullivan's Travels (1941), Hollywood director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides he's tired of making comedic fluff and wants to make an important movie about the poor. "The subject is not an interesting one," counters his butler (Robert Greig). "The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous." But Sullivan won't be deterred, and to experience the hard life firsthand, he disguises himself as a hobo and sets off on his divine mission. It's a learning experience, all right: The nation's downtrodden teach him a valuable lesson about the need for his brand of fluff in their lives — after all, is there anything that unites people more than the simple pleasure of a good, long laugh?
Director John Ford's adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940) pulls no punches in relating the saga of the Joad family, poor Okie farmers who head to California hoping to find work after their own land is decimated by drought and taken away by heartless banks and corporations. In this film, there's no common ground, no sense of solidarity and certainly no shared laughter between the haves and the have-nots; as Henry Fonda's soul-stirring "I'll be there" speech suggests, the only hope is for the little guys to watch each other's backs when those in charge come calling.
Race Relations Michael Mann's screen version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) is a movie of many great moments, yet one of my favorite scenes is its most subtle. As British officers try to strong-arm the American settlers into joining their fight against the French, a few of the colonials grow tired of the gabbing and join their Native American friends in a spirited ball game not unlike soccer. It's a touching scene, quietly suggesting a future co-existence that tragically never occurred.
"It is like writing history with lightning" is how President Woodrow Wilson described D.W. Griffith's landmark motion picture The Birth of a Nation (1915). What he failed to mention was that it was also written with the poison pen of racial intolerance. In this film, the members of the Ku Klux Klan are portrayed as heroes, coming forth to defend the post-Civil War South from rampaging blacks (mostly played by white actors in dark blackface). Manipulated by Northern whites (but of course), the blacks pass their time molesting white women and raising hell in the halls of justice, where, in one astonishing scene, they're shown lounging in the congressional seats, picking their toes and tossing gnawed chicken bones at each other! Ninety years later, the movie continues to incite arguments, with many praising the film for its revolutionary technical innovations while others condemn it for its offensive content.
Rural America It used to be that nothing represented the heart and soul of this country more than the common country folk who lived on their humble farms far away from the clamor and commotion of the big city. This vision of idyllic Americana can be seen in one of the most beloved movies of all time, 1939's The Wizard of Oz. Farm girl Dorothy (Judy Garland) endures all sorts of fantastic experiences, yet her mantra turns out to be, "There's no place like home."
For the better part of the past three decades, however, rural America has become a place in which evil springs up like wildflower. Occasional comedies like Doc Hollywood (1991) and Sweet Home Alabama (2002) still depict small-town America as a friendly place full of quirky yet harmless simpletons, yet the common vision is better exemplified by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a blood-curdling horror yarn in which in-bred, cannibalistic country folk discover that city folk can be finger-lickin' good. Cut off from modern civilization, these backwater burgs, most so remote that indoor plumbing remains an innovative concept (let alone such new-fangled contraptions as telephones and TV), can be seen in all manner of terror tales, from such 70s cult items as The Hills Have Eyes (1977) to more recent fare like House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and the House of Wax remake (2005).
War How can we Americans best celebrate our freedoms? Well, watching American actors pretending to stick it to the Nazis is always a good starting point. Nothing brings out the patriot as efficiently as an exciting World War II yarn. Who doesn't thrill seeing Steve McQueen attempt to jump that barbed wire fence in The Great Escape (1963), watching Clint Eastwood silently eliminate German sentries in Where Eagles Dare (1968), or even checking out a gang of murderers and thieves blow away the enemy in The Dirty Dozen (1967)? Heck, it's a rush watching even The Three Stooges take on the Nazis in shorts like You Nazty Spy (1940) and Back from the Front (1943).
Only in the movies can it be declared that "War Is Swell"; in reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. Anti-war sentiments have long existed in Hollywood, but it wasn't until the string of Vietnam War flicks in the 70s and 80s that Americans primarily began to use the medium to focus on the insanity and senselessness of conflict. Stanley Kubrick's brilliant Full Metal Jacket (1987) is especially potent, in that it demonstrates how the dehumanization of young American boys starts while the lads are still on US soil, being trained stateside in the fine art of death and destruction.
Politics Younger readers may find this difficult to believe, but there once was a time when the mainstream press was a proud institution, full of people who took their jobs as moral watchdogs seriously and who did their best to insure the bad guys wouldn't get away with their assorted crimes. All the President's Men (1976) depicts the American media during arguably its finest hour, when two of its brash reporters, Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), stuck to their guns despite testy opposition and eventually blew open the Watergate scandal that toppled a presidency. This expertly mounted film has long been acknowledged as a classic political thriller, but watching it in today's climate, when a timid and ineffectual media is only too willing to serve as the complacent whipping boy for an insidious administration, reveals its newfound value as a time capsule piece as well.
All the President's Men centered on a vile and corrupt president who received his comeuppance. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), on the other hand, focuses on an equally reprehensible leader who's managing to get away with everything. It's too depressing to once more go over the litany of offenses committed by the war criminal in charge and his band of cutthroats — better to pop open a cold one, give thanks for the Fourth of July and all it represents, and pray that America will one day come to its senses and reclaim its former glory.