Cinema Spotlight: U.S.A.

Scott Wallace
4th Jul 2015

Today is the 4th of July, the day on which, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed and the United States of America gained independence from the British Empire. There is an inescapable national identity that comes from American culture, and what better way to explore it than with some gold old fashioned American movies. Here are five movies from the U.S.A. that demonstrate just what America is all about.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

No one does movie musicals better than Hollywood, and what better movie to represent the United States than Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biopic of legendary song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, framed in flashback by a fictionalised version of him telling his life story in to President Franklin Roosevelt. Long before gritty biopics were the trend du jour, American entertainment icons (for another example see Al Jolson in The Jolson Story and The Jazz Singer) were given lush and spectacular treatment like this. In Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney, who draws brilliantly on his own history in musical theatre and eventually won an Oscar for this role, plays Cohan. It’s been called inaccurate and it’s been called a patriotic propaganda film, but when a movie is this much fun, does that really matter?

The Searchers (1956)

You can’t talk about American film without talking about Westerns. The Searchers brings together acclaimed director John Ford, quintessential cowboy John Wayne and a novel by Alan Le May for one of the finest (if not the finest) movie Westerns ever made. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, who, after a lengthy absence, returns to his brother’s home on the Texas frontier just after the end of the civil war. A nearby family have problems with cattle rustlers and suspect that a nearby tribe of Comanche is to blame. After the conflict grows violent and Ethan’s family is torn apart, he sets out on a journey to find his kidnapped niece Debbie (played by Natalie Wood). Watching the film now, the depiction of race can make some people uncomfortable, but this is a beautifully made, powerfully acted and very poetic depiction of a wild and youthful America.

All the President’s Men (1976)

The Watergate scandal hangs over the American psyche like few other events. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the journalists responsible for uncovering the scandal, wrote a tell-all account, which then became this thrilling film. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Woodward and Bernstein respectively, playing the everyman heroes with just the right balance of fear and boldness. Director Alan J. Pakula and his team tell the story with enormous artistry and respect for this real life mystery story. All the President’s Men is, at its heart, about the triumph of a free press, finding a silver lining in a story that is intrinsically an unhappy one. What is more awe-inspiring than two ordinary men using all the power they have to uncover and expose a corrupt government? Stories like that are what America is all about.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Do the Right Thing is African-American director Spike Lee’s masterpiece. A tense, tightly coiled, visually rich depiction of the melting pot of contemporary America based entirely around one block in the Bed-Stuy neighbourhood of Brookyln. Lee plays Mookie, a young man who works as a delivery boy for the local pizzeria, owned and operated by Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons Pino and Vito (John Turturro and Richard Edson). Over the course of one very hot day, tensions among an enormous and varied cast, including such talents as Rosie Perez and Samuel L. Jackson, come to a head, resulting in devastating violence and unrest. Positively shuddering with righteous anger, Do the Right Thing tells its urgent, profound and complex tale with an eye-popping urban style and unbeatable hip-hop soundtrack, making it an absolutely iconic piece of cinema.

A League of Their Own (1992)

Baseball is the American pastime, but during World War II, there weren’t many American men at home to play. A League of Their Own tells of the women’s baseball teams that sprung up in the absence of male players, capturing a very unique moment in America’s sporting history. The film features a stellar cast, including (among others) Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Tom Hanks. The ragtag bunch is chosen to play as The Rockford Peaches, and they quickly become the stars of the league. It’s refreshing to see a sports film that is so focused on women – on their determination, their spirit and the friendships that arise between them. It’s not just a film about baseball, as we see when the war directly impacts the women who have been deprived of their loved ones; it’s about those who were left behind coping with a world that suddenly changed around them.