I've done this exercise before, and some of the same films made the list this time, but not all. America in 2016 is different than the America of 2002, and that's part of what I love about this country.
And make no mistake… I love this country. I believe America is a nation defined by contradictions. I am both cynical and idealistic about it, and I love it precisely because of the ways it breaks my heart. I am fully aware that one can only exist because of the other. With that in mind, here are ten films that, taken together, define the state of our union in the year 2016.
THE RIGHT STUFF
Philip Kaufman”s movie celebrating the accomplishments of the Mercury Seven astronauts is more than just a celebration of the pioneer spirit. The film is a gorgeous dream, a poem about heroism and celebrity and ego and optimism. The film gets close-up with these now-legendary figures, and by humanizing them, it makes the point that no one starts as a legend. Using humor and a clear-eyed unromantic view of everything that went into winning the space race, Kaufman captures everything that was great about Tom Wolfe”s sprawling book, steering one of the great ensembles of the ’80s and creating a potent portrait of what it takes to be great.
It”s impossible to talk about America without talking about war at some point, and if there”s any war that sums up America most ably, it”s the Civil War. How crazy is it that one of the greatest movies about that conflict is about a hero on the Southern side? It is a testament to Buster Keaton”s innate likeability and genius for physical comedy that he manages to get us rooting for his character completely, but what makes this an important statement about the American psyche is that it reminds us that even in the most heated and moral battles, we are all fighting for our own ideal version of that promise that America represents. Whatever our country is, it exists in the place where all of those ideals come together, and we are at our best when we are united by our similarities instead of divided by our differences.
THE MOSQUITO COAST
America has certainly overreached in situations around the world, and it will most likely always be something we are guilty of, an idea that is embodied by Peter Weir”s angry, beautiful adaptation of the terrific novel by Paul Theroux. Harrison Ford does career-best work as Allie Fox, a man who believes that he is fed up with America, but who is instead a sort of weaponized version of one curdled version of the American dream. He”s a missionary, but whatever he gets his version of America on ends up burnt or dead. He”s that part of the American identity that can”t stop complaining but that can”t get out of its own way, either. He believes he”s a pioneer like the men in The Right Stuff, but he”s not spreading something that people actually want or need. He”s running, and he”s forcing “progress” on a world that is doing just fine without it.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth looking for water for his dying planet, only to catch a nasty case of America in the process. Nicolas Roeg”s science-fiction film is ferocious, and watching it, you feel like you”re Thomas Jerome Newton, slowly succumbing to a steady diet of television and slow-drip affluence. It”s amazing that this film stars an English pop icon and was directed by a filmmaker who was not from America, because the film does an amazing job of summing up just how hard we will work to numb ourselves to the truth. Our culture is killing us, and we can”t get enough of it.
What happens when we have finally had enough of the fear that the news media has been selling us for the past forty years? We”ll never know, because we seem to have an unlimited appetite for this garbage, and we”re unable to figure out what”s bad for us and what”s good for us now. We let the media tell us how bad the media is for us even as we stay glued to the pipe that pours it into our eyes and ears non-stop. Paddy Cheyefsky”s brilliant screenplay was a cry for us to wake up, and we just plain didn”t listen. Instead, we”ve allowed things to go so far beyond what he envisioned that he would have never written anything like our current reality. He would have thought it too ridiculous, too on-the-nose. Watch Network, then immediately flip over to any 24-hour news channel. It doesn”t matter which ideology you celebrate and which you despise… we”ve passed self-parody and barrelled headlong into oblivion, one smiling insidious demagogue at a time.
One part of the American identity that filmmakers have never really nailed in a definitive way is our relationship with sex. There”s something impossible to catch on film about our peculiar combination of third-grade prurience and our inability to let go of our Puritan sense of shame about our bodies and our sexuality. Mike Nichols got closest with the tale of Benjamin Braddock, played to comic perfection by Dustin Hoffman who captures this boy wrestling with a man”s desires and responsibilities, paralyzed on the verge of real adulthood. Braddock is bullied into his relationship with Mrs. Robinson, and his relationship with Elaine Robinson is no smarter, no better considered. It”s a miracle he makes it through the film intact based on the way he pinballs along, unaware of the damage he leaves in his path, unconcerned with anyone”s happiness or peace of mind but his own. A generation embraced Benjamin as a symbol of themselves, and it”s a telling statement. When Elaine and Benjamin take their seats in the back of the bus, their ride into an uncertain future signified the death of a certain type of American romanticism, a belief in a world of love at first sight and musical numbers and happily ever after. Some might call the new attitude cynicism, but it might just as easily be called realism.
Americans have to be forgiven for their inability to know what to trust anymore, because we have conditioned them to feel this confused about the nature of truth. There are times where it seems like how Americans feel about something is more important than any fact, and we seem to be capable of building narratives around our emotional needs, regardless of the difficult truths that make us feel so off-balance in the first place. Steven Colbert has made fun of this, even coining the word “truthiness” to describe it, and no film better explains our tenuous relationship with reality than Oliver Stone”s brilliant look at how the deep scar left by the death of JFK sent an entire nation scrambling for answers that would make them feel better, no matter what the truth.
If we can look at Oliver Stone”s film as a way of explaining the damage done to America by the murder of a President, then Martin Scorsese”s profane early masterpiece Taxi Driver is the movie that explains what leads to someone pulling that trigger in the first place. We have elevated fame and influence to an unnatural spot of importance, and when it pushes the wrong buttons and sours someone because of all the things they can”t have, it can be explosively dangerous. We have created a system that makes people feel like they have no voice, and we have told them that fame at any cost will give them that voice. How can we be surprised at the lengths the truly broken will go when we”ve sold out our own values so completely?
One of the greatest documentaries ever made manages to encompass both the highs and the lows of what the American dream promises to young black Americans, and I can”t imagine anyone watching this without learning empathy for an entire class of people who have spent much of American history marginalized economically and legally. Part of the way we have to redress privilege in this country is by acknowledging it exists, and few films have ever done a better job of showing us exactly how the deck is stacked. By following its subjects for as long as it does and by allowing things to evolve over a full three hours, it makes the point that this is not an isolated case. This is reality for a huge chunk of our population, and this film shows us that there is no such thing as an easy answer when human beings are involved.
Why is this one last on the list? Because underneath everything I”ve said so far in this piece, there is a stubborn belief that we are, as Americans, unable to accept anything less than triumph. I may have my fears about the future and my skepticism about where we are right now, but at our best, we are the underdog who stands up for what is great and what is urgent and what is best about people, and I want to believe that we are always going to get back to our feet, no matter how beaten we feel at any point. We are Rocky Balboa, and we will get back up and do our best, and we will take care of the people we love and we will learn to be better people and we will fail and we will struggle and we will hurt. And in the end, we will stand up again and again and again, and we will never quit. That”s America. And I have to believe that version of America is the one that will be standing in the end.
We may turn this into an ongoing video series in which we examine movies that say something about our country, but for now, this is a start. Happy 4th of July, folks.