When it comes to the “land I love,” the movies that move us most happen to be based on the stories of real Americans. They get to the core of what America really means and show why this nation is truly exceptional.
America’s dedication to liberty makes it a nation like no other. That’s why, whether the setting is war, politics, courtrooms, sports, or science, when Hollywood makes movies about exceptional Americans they celebrate the true value and meaning of liberty. And that inspires us.
10. The Patriot
Farmer Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a peaceful, pastoral father of seven, pretty much winds up winning American independence all by himself. A composite character drawing from the biographies of several historical figures, the farmer Martin has been called “the Wayne Gretzky of the Revolution.” While it might not be a perfect history lesson, The Patriot (2000) is an exciting, moving and inspiring American war film — and easily the most entertaining movie ever made about the fight for independence.
It took an exceptional nation to champion the cause of women’s equality. The greatest heroes were those who, by their personal example, rejected the marginalization of anyone’s humanity — a quintessentially American trait. No film says more about this irrepressible spirit than The Miracle Worker (1962). On March 3, 1887, Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) from the Perkins School for the Blind introduces herself to the seven-year-old deaf and blind Helen Keller. What follows is a remarkable story of transformation. As an adult, Keller became a world-famous lecturer, author and activist. Keller’s politics veered to the far left. She campaigned for the Socialist Eugene Debs for president. But it’s the person, not the politics, that distinguishes Americans. Keller rightly remains an enduring American icon.
Not too bothered with excessive accuracy, this high-adventure film tells a fanciful version of Americans kidnapped by a Berber chieftain (Sean Connery) and President Teddy Roosevelt’s (Brian Keith) decision to use the “big stick” to get them back. It is a beautiful, sweeping piece of cinema with a soaring musical score, gorgeous vistas, colorful characters and cliffhanger action. In the nadir of America’s tragic experience in Vietnam, The Wind and the Lion (1975) was a stirring remainder of just how exceptional the nation could be when its people were led by clear-sighted, bold and courageous leaders.
The 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial” was part theater, part farce and part fight for academic freedom. In the Hollywood version (1960) of events, larger-than-life lawyers Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) face off over a high school science instructor accused of teaching evolution, contrary to state law.
This movie is often trumpeted as just another case of Hollywood progressive preaching and triumphalism. That’s wrong. In the wake of the anti-communist purges of academia and Hollywood in the 1950s, Inherit the Wind was intended to be primarily understood as a cautionary tale against unrestrained anti-intellectualism and the suppression of freedom of expression. The meaning of this well-told tale seems to be lost on many contemporary progressives, who today too often seem willing to shut down debate and demonize opposing views on issues such as climate change. That idea is simply un-American.
This Hollywood version of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team composed exclusively of Japanese-Americans is a remarkable film. The story, which centers on an inexperienced lieutenant (Van Johnson) leading his platoon from boot camp to combat in Italy during World War II, is pretty standard fare. But this 1951 movie is extraordinary for dealing fairly directly with racial prejudice during the war and the struggle to reconcile the internment of Japanese-Americans with the greater battle for the future of freedom. The combat record of the real-life regiment was larger than life and bigger than Hollywood. Members of the unit received more than 9,000 Purple Hearts. Its ranks included 21 Medal of Honor recipients
The story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball is not only one of the greatest sports stories in American history, it is one of the most important steps in the American journey. This underrated 2013 film depicts how the odd-couple partnership of Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and hard-boiled team owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) shifted the nation’s moral scale. The racist taunts, humiliations and hostilities from his own teammates depicted in the film were real-life experiences, not Hollywood embellishments.
A volatile coach with a sketchy past (Gene Hackman), the town drunk (Dennis Hopper) and a handful of farm kids fight their way to the state basketball championship. Loosely based on Milan High School, which won the Indiana state championship in 1954, this 1986 film is a classic all-American sports movie. This spot could just have well been filled by Glory Road (2006), the story of the first all-black team to reach the NCAA basketball finals. Both tell similar stories of redemption and overcoming adversity, American-style.
3. October Sky
It is Oct. 5, 1957. The Cold War was never colder. From the heartland of Russia a finger of fire reaches into the sky. Sputnik orbits the earth. Moscow has beat Washington into space. In poverty-stricken Appalachia, four dirt-poor boys led by Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) decide they are going to help get America back into the space race. Homer winds up winning the National Science Fair and becomes a NASA engineer. This 1999 film is distinguished for its inspiring interpretation of a real-life American story, though its title is unforgivably boring.
2. Apollo 13
It was April 11, 1970, when the voice crackled over the speaker, “Houston, we have a problem.” This dramatic, engaging 1995 retelling of the endangered spaceflight and the three astronauts (Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise and Kevin Bacon) on board is one of the best celluloid portrayals of the “can-do” American spirit in Hollywood’s history.
1. United 93
It is still difficult to watch this 2006 recounting of the plane hijacked on 9/11 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the passengers valiantly tried to retake the cockpit. Passenger Todd Beamer’s (David Alan Basche) last words — “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll” — are an unforgettable reminder of the courage of everyday Americans. They knew that they might not be able to save themselves, but they were going to stop the next attack.
These 10 films are not all happy stories about the American experience. Rightly so. America is not a perfect nation. But these are 10 worthy examples of how truly exceptional Americans can be when they strive to live the purpose of the exceptional country — and engage in the pursuit of liberty.