If there were a Mr. America in classic Hollywood, it would have been Jimmy Stewart. Everything about the bashful, stammering every-man was apple pie and old glory, and his roles reflected that. Stewart and director Frank Capra were a dream team of wholesomeness in their collaborations (especially Christmas favorite It's a Wonderful Life), but Mr. Smith also has a certain amount of bite when talking about the political process. When former scout ranger Stewart heads to Washington as the hand-picked replacement for a deceased Senator, business as usual in the corrupt capital is expected. The way Smith turns the halls of government on its head, including his famous "liberty is far too precious a thing to be buried in books" speech, will make anyone want to turn on CSPAN and pay attention to the legislative process, even if it is for the first time.
If there's nothing more American than fighting for your rights, there's something extra American about fighting for the rights of others. Sally Field's Academy Award winning performance as factory worker turned activist Norma Rae sparked a conversation about work conditions and the importance of labor unions that bled over into real life. Years before Julia Roberts played Erin Brockovich, Sally was our citizen activist movie heroine that we aspired to be. Instead of waving a flag this 4th, stand on a table and hold up a sign that says "UNION!"
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck's eternal story of a Oklahoma Dust Bowl family searching for a new life in California ends with one of the most American speeches in all of movie history, lifted straight from the novel. Henry Fonda sells Tom Joad's monologue about brotherhood, injustice and the rights of man like no one else; it's impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. "Well, maybe it's like Casey said, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul." Just try and sit through it without shedding a tear for your country.
There are many biopics of Abraham Lincoln (Young Mr. Lincoln starring Henry Fonda and Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Raymond Massey are among the best), but this Steven Spielberg film (from a screenplay by Tony Kushner) is by far the most intimate yet encompassing story that shows Lincoln the president and Abraham Lincoln, the man. Daniel Day Lewis rightly won the Academy Award for his masterful performance as Lincoln, but the entire cast deserves praise, especially Sally Field as Mary Todd and Joseph Gordon Levitt as the Lincolns' eldest son. Hearing Lincoln's speeches in Lewis' majestic voice makes all your high school history text books come to life in a way they never did when you were cutting fourth period.
Some people look at the Nixon/Watergate scandal as a shameful period in American history. Thanks to Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams in the movie Dick, I look at it as a period of great comedy. Before the identity of Deep Throat was revealed, Dick floated the theory that two high school girls (Dunst and Williams) were actually the source that exposed the greatest scandal in presidential history. I almost wish it were true that an intern in love with Nixon was the source of the big reveal to the Washington Post, but overall, I'm just proud a filmmaker found the laughs in the Nixon presidency, which, corruption and scandals aside, was hysterical.