I haven’t found any other acceptable lists of patriotic movies. Other lists tend to be less patriotic than jingoistic and nationalistic, less about celebrating the essential American values and triumphs (sometimes triumphs over ourselves) than about dominating some furriners in war or sport. That’s why Top Gun and Miracle show up on those lists, but not on mine.
Throughout our history, American patriots have taken risks and made sacrifices for ideas and causes greater than themselves. Here are ten movies that celebrate such authentic patriotism.
1. Casablanca: Our greatest film also depicts the decision to make a painful personal sacrifice, abandoning the love of one’s life, to join the risky fight against fascism, racism and fundamental evil. “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Now that’s the essence of patriotism.
2. John Adams: There was a time when the English subjects in North America needed to be convinced to seek Independence. There was a time – a long time – when the outcome of the war for that Independence was uncertain. There was a time when the winners of that war needed to invent a new government. And then the new government needed to be led by people without experience in self-government. John Adams, the most overlooked giant of our Founding Fathers, was a central player in all of these dramatic events and is the subject of this brilliant mini-series.
Unique among the Founding Fathers, his day-to-day activities were frankly chronicled in hundreds of letters to and from his wife of fifty-four years, Abigail. These surviving letters comprise one of the most essential first-hand accounts of the founding of America, and, of course, also reveal much about the talented but prickly Adams and the Adams’ relationship.
3. Gettysburg: This is the best Civil War movie, shot on the actual battlefield with thousands of re-enactors. It makes this list because it highlights the character of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a professor of rhetoric and theology, who finds himself leading a few men to defend his army’s most vulnerable position; the screenplay uses Chamberlain to verbalize the reason for his commitment to preserve the world’s flagship democracy.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird: Atticus Finch is compelled to pursue truth, justice and fair play, and he is committed to reaching those outcomes in the American justice system that he cherishes. In doing so, he rejects the expectations of his time and place, and he risks his community standing, his family’s comfort and security and his own personal safety.
5. Saving Private Ryan: A high school teacher is thrust onto history’s biggest stage: the Allied invasion of Nazi-held Normandy. He is assigned a dangerous mission that he understands has public relations value, but little military tactical importance. He appreciates how high are the risks and how little the impact that the mission will have on the outcome of the War, yet maintains his focus on the success of his mission and the safety of his men.
6. The Best Years of Our Lives: A war ends, and it’s time to total up the sacrifices made by both those who fought and their loved ones, and to recognize how they have been changed by their experiences. Check out this beautifully re-cut trailer.
7: Eyes on the Prize: American’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965: July 4, 1776, is the start, not the apex, of the American journey. Since then, we have been working to fashion a more ideal America – in both tiny increments and great strides, with missteps along the way. This series tells the story of a great stride – accomplished by underdogs.
8. Seven Days in May: Is patriotism about nationalism (us against outsiders), or is it a devotion to the American core principle of democracy? That’s the central question in this thriller about a plotted military coup in the United States.
9. In Harm’s Way: This is the closest to a conventional war movie on this list, but one about Americans facing a conflict with determination despite being uncertain of the outcome. It depicts even the most troubled American making the ultimate sacrifice for a greater good. Otto Preminger introduces his own trailer:
10. Baseball: This is the Ken Burns nine part history of baseball. There is some heroism here (Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey), but mostly this film makes the list to celebrate an essential thread in the American fabric. Like our culture, baseball has rules, history, customs, competition, winners and losers. Like our country, baseball has been shaped by immigration, urbanization and new technologies. Like our nation’s history, baseball’s history is replete with racists, greedy capitalists, cheaters, solid role models, eccentrics, innovators, visionaries and idealists. Baseball has its own language, food and iconography, and is generally one of the most consistently sweet things about America. For better or for worse, there is nothing more American than baseball, and what’s more patriotic than watching Baseball?