Real Patriotism In Film
America is not about flag-waving nor the segregation of others, yet we so often blindly stand before a piece of cloth that has been left amongst the remnants of those in power that tarnish it while we play films that celebrate this country like a lifeless banjo unaware that most of its strings are left broken. The pictures that honor this country are the ones that criticize it for the betterment of its people. Movies like "All Quiet on The Western Front" "The Best Years of Our Lives" "Paths of Glory" "Born on The Fourth of July" "The Deer Hunter" "Coming Home" and "Platoon." War is a recurrent theme in what I consider to be genuinely patriotic films when done correctly. They remind me why even during the worst of times, it's essential to remain vigilant when the country I live in is under attack by its very leaders.
Today, July 4, 2019, President Donald Trump chooses to make a mockery out of our military by staging a parade in front of the Lincoln Memorial with reserved seating for hundreds of VIPs, flyovers by the Blue Angels and Air Force One and Abrams tanks displayed on the mall for the event. Such an event has never been staged before except in 1970 with Richard Nixon which still only pales in comparison. It's always the biggest chickenhawks who want to act like the most robust leaders. Trump's fetishization of the military brings back memories of George W. Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln sporting jet fighter fatigues and a banner stating "Mission Accomplished." War is not pretty, nor is the segregation of its citizens. However, the 4th of July recently has wholly ignored the fact that it was a celebration of our independence from colonial control and is now nothing more than a perverse party for capitalism. This isn't patriotism; it's a rise to fascism.
Films like "Sands of Iwo Jima" "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" "Max" (a cute movie about a military bomb-sniffing dog) "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" tell audiences to shut down their minds, point fingers at the bad guys who look different than us and enjoy the show. Oh, and let us not forget Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" a romanticized tale about a soldier who would often jest about murdering civilians in real life. While by some miracle, Trump hasn't led us into war, yet, I can see the floodgates of these propaganda films being produced at an alarming rate once that war does happen. To honor your country isn't to follow it off a cliff, it's to help your fellow man.
Before Vietnam, most films enjoyed celebrating war. America was infatuated with a John Wayne(Esque) view of the battle. It wasn't until the disaster of Nam that citizens began to question their country's leadership. Before Vietman, we were blessed with films like "The Best Years of Our Lives" a tale about returning WWII veteran Homer Parrish. (played by Harold Russel) On a plane ride back to the United States Homer along with two other soldiers, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Al Stephenson (Frederic March) discuss their lives back home, who they look forward to seeing, expecting welcome returns. The ability to reintegrate to society proves difficult for the men. With both of his arms lost, now having hooks for hands, Homer is viewed as a sort of freak by his family. Their silence is deafening when Homer tries to maintain a healthy family conversation with them. The role of Homer for Harold Russel was especially significant as he was a real disabled veteran; the hooks were a result of TNT blowing off his hands during a training exercise. Like a man who only peaked in high school, Fred Darry can't find a decent job despite his good looks. Fred settles for the humiliating position of a soda jerk in the local mall barely able to make ends meet for his wife. With his head held high, Al Stephenson tries to maintain a tough persona, but his empathy gets the best of him approving countless loans to fellow veterans against his banks will until he is forced to stop leaving him feeling helpless inside.
Homer gets married in the end, Fred loses everything from his wife to his job because of his explosive personality as a result of the shell shock he endured, and Al can't support his fellow men who've returned from the battlefield. The concept of coming home was examined thoroughly after the Vietnam War. "The Deer Hunter" is the most famous example where everyone in that film came back either injured, a shell of their former self or cut from reality altogether. The irony of everyone singing "God Bless America" while weeping over the death of a lost friend is not lost on anyone. Captain Bob Hyde's dip into complete insanity in Hal Ashby's "Coming Home" further encompasses the near irreversible damage the war has created for returning soldiers. The most vocal of filmmakers relating to Vietnam, Oliver Stone examined the atrocities the soldiers created on the battlefield as Stone recreates his own experiences on screen with "Platoon." Taking some close notes from Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" Stone pushed the moral envelope even further painting controversial strokes of American soldiers who are lionized for their unspeakable actions. In Stone's world, for the men who didn't lose their humanity, there were those whose sense of empathy was removed moments after they killed a man.
To follow up "Platoon," Stone created a stroke of genius by saying, "What if Frank Capra made an anti-war film?" In what will be a performance that shockingly proved Tom Cruise was more than just good looks or stunts "Born on The Fourth of July" was a picture that was not so much a political film but instead a human portrait. Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) has the most patriotic family imaginable whose torn apart because his parents couldn't accept his rejection of the war which took his ability to walk. Ron finds true freedom when he renounces his countries leaders that use him as a tool for their political gains in a thrilling sequence that depicts the riots during the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami.
Patriotism in a film not only rests in the resilience of war but extends to our judicial branch as well. Take "To Kill A Mockingbird," a movie based on Harper Lee's acclaimed novel about a black man by the name of Tom Robinson falsely accused of raping a young white girl named Mayella Ewell in the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus Finch is assigned to defend Robinson in an imminent failure of a case thanks to the mob mentality of the town's racism backed by America's intolerant judicial system. The real patriot of the film wasn't the people of Maycomb; it was Atticus because he challenged the system. Atticus believed in love over hate. Hate dominated in the end, but through Atticus' determination to prove that there is still good in this world; he gives us a sense of hope. When Atticus' daughter Scout extends her hand to introduce herself to Robinson, it's a sign that we can reclaim our childlike innocence even after our country tries to strip it of it its dignity through bigotry.
Documentaries like "The Times of Harvey Milk" examines the marginalization of the gay community in America. Harvey Milk proved that although love could prevail, hate will permanently remain a vigilante force. Milk was San Fransico's Castro district first openly gay elected Board of Supervisors only to be assassinated shortly before his stint in office. The killer, a white conservative fellow Board of Supervisor, Dan White. The reason he killed Harvey Milk? Because Mayor George Moscone refused to reappoint White to his seat. After shooting Moscone and Milk in San Fransisco's City Hall, what was his punishment? Dan White served five years out of a seven-year prison sentence and was only charged with voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. His lawyers argued that White was depressed because he was eating surgery foods. This was titled the "Twinkie defense." The results of the case led to the White Night riots. Many accused the jury of letting White off so easy because of their inherent homophobia. I tend to agree.
In recent years, I've seen films that challenge our judicial system, yet our stance on war has remained mostly silent. Before, during, and after the Iraq war, I can recall maybe two narrative films that were distinctly against those wars. "In The Valley Elah" and "The Messenger." Otherwise, I just got another middle of the road bland "Hurtlocker" or an emphatic red white and blue confetti-filled celebration like "Max." Movies such as "When They See Us" have taken our courts to the public, casting a much-needed mirror on America's racism. When celebrating America's independence today, I would urge you to check out some of the films I've mentioned. I would also advise you to not give up on America. Instead of watching Trump make clowns out of our troops, watch the films that truly honor them by displaying the horrors they went through. Think about our immigrant neighbors who are trapped in cages, watch a movie that's fighting for them, or a picture about oppressed groups who are striving for a better democracy. Although a fictional character there were men like Atticus Finch out there in his time fighting for other people's rights. America can be better; don't settle for complacency.