Hot dogs, fireworks, and movies: three things that are synonymous with celebrating the 4th of July holiday. There’s much to celebrate about the still relatively young United States of America, and certainly plenty to work on, as is the case with any country. Thanks to a variety of filmmakers and storytellers, nearly all of the diverse aspects of the American experience have been portrayed on film.
From the the rah rah enthusiasm of movies like National Treasure to the thrills of Jaws to the thought-provoking and moving drama of Born on the Fourth of July, Harriet, Glory and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, there is something for everybody as they reflect on America and celebrate her Independence Day.
Here are a few films that A.frame has rounded up for you to screen while beating the summer heat this 4th of July.
Jaws is the blockbuster that set the bar when it debuted in the summer of '75. Widely considered one of the greatest films ever made, Steven Spielberg’s breakout film features horror, suspense, action, adventure, and even a dash of comedy. Written by Peter Benchley (adapted from his novel) and Carl Gottlieb, the film is grounded in the reality of man versus nature versus bureaucracy. Beachgoers are being picked off one by one by the unstoppable great white shark hidden in the water, but, at the insistence of the mayor of Amity Island, the beaches cannot close on the 4th of July as that would result in a loss of tourism dollars. So, an unlikely trio of heroes (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw) set off into the perilous waters to hunt the shark down, setting the stage for one gripping finale.
Born on the Fourth of July is based on the memoir of former Marine and Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, tracking his journey from dedicated soldier to anti-war activist. Tom Cruise stars as Kovic, delivering one of the best dramatic performances of his career (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). The drama was directed by Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam veteran. Stone, having already won an Oscar for Best Director for Platoon three years earlier, won his second Oscar for Best Director for Born on the Fourth of July. The memoir and film don’t shy away from the harsh realities of PTSD, the struggle to recover, and the bravery it takes to speak out against those in power. It’s a reminder that, for all that is good in America, there are issues that still need to be addressed.
Baseball is America’s pastime, and The Sandlot captures how the game can take hold of a person from an early age. When Scotty, better known as Smalls, moves to a new neighborhood, he’s a lonely kid until he meets the baseball enthusiasts around the neighborhood. There’s a magic to the childhood depicted in The Sandlot, filled with adventures, intimidating dogs, and even the ghost of Babe Ruth himself. During the film's beautiful 4th of July scene, the kids, who are in the middle of playing, forget about the game for a minute and simply admire the spectacular fireworks lighting up the sky above them.
"I’m going to steal the Declaration of Independence." With that line, a wild historical ride was born. Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, historian, cryptographer, and treasure hunter, on a quest to find a hidden trove of gold and more, stashed away during the Revolutionary War. The movie takes viewers through some of America’s greatest landmarks, and is a treat for history buffs playing along at home to decode the clues along with Cage and the rest of the cast. The location hopping and puzzle solving is peak summer fun, perfect to watch after the fireworks are over.
Wet Hot American Summer went from under the radar to bona fide cult classic over the past two decades, poking fun at camp movie tropes with an absurdist lens. The movie is packed with an all-star cast, including Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, and many, many more. Filled with quotable lines, goofy sequences, and an appearance from NASA’s Skylab, it’s a bizarro comedy perfect for those nostalgic for their summer camp days.
Captain America: The First Avenger makes plenty of sense with this holiday, as Steve Rogers becomes a reluctant patriotic figure during WWII. But the sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, captures a different side of his struggles, using the tropes of a 70s Cold War thriller to pull back the curtain on the institutions Captain America ostensibly defends. That leads to Cap being on the run, questioning everything he had ever believed in, and digging deeper to protect his country and his Avenger teammates from dark and, ultimately, very human forces.
America’s eventual dominance in the space race would not have been possible without the Black women behind the scenes, who performed complex calculations – pre-computers – and used their math and engineering skills to help their country pull ahead. Hidden Figures tells the story of three of those women, played by Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáeand Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, detailing their struggles to complete their mission during a segregated and misogynistic era. As the title suggests, their contributions were long-hidden by history until this movie and a previously published book highlighted their important contributions, correcting a long-standing omission in history. Hidden Figures was nominated for two Oscars (Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay).
When Hamilton swept the country after its Broadway debut in 2015, many wondered if there were plans to adapt the rap musical for the big screen, particularly with the original cast. Luckily, in 2020, audiences who missed out on the live theater experience of the show were able to watch a full version on Disney Plus, featuring the Tony award winning cast. Creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda found Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s life story so compelling that he created an entire musical about him, combining the genres of rap, soul, pop, and orchestral music to create a uniquely American production about a complicated historical figure.
Jimmy Stewart delivers a powerful performance as a young Senator fighting corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film was controversial at the time of its release, considered anti-American and pro-Communist for its negative portrayal of the government, but it is precisely that portrayal that makes it a classic. Through Mr. Smith’s impassioned 25-hour filibuster and dedication to the truth, the drama presents an American ideal that one person’s voice can truly be heard by the highest offices in the country. The film won the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story.
Harriet Tubman is an incredible figure in American history, leading enslaved people to freedom through the Underground Railroad. She finally gets her due on-screen in Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo in the title role. Erivo, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her powerful and understated performance as Tubman, portrays the icon from young woman to leader, balancing her strategic genius and bravery with her spirituality. Kasi Lemmons' film is a powerful ode to a woman who proved that one person really can make a difference, change the world for the better, and leave behind a legacy that inspires future generations.
Glory features one of Denzel Washington’s best performances as Private Silas Trip, a member of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the Union’s earliest Black regiments in the Civil War. (Washington received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.) Trip forms an uneasy relationship with his colonel (Matthew Broderick) and the other members of the unit played by Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher as conflicts not only along racial lines but between freed and escaped enslaved men develop during the unit’s training. Edward Zwick's biographical war drama works to honor the men who risked their own freedom and their lives during the Civil War to secure the freedom of the enslaved people of the United States.
Before his TV series The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin brought us inside the White House with the charming romantic comedy-drama The American President. Michael Douglas stars as a widower president who falls for Annette Bening’s environmental lobbyist. Love and ethics collide as both try to achieve their political goals while maintaining their relationship, finding that compromise isn’t as easy as some might think. The film is peppered with Sorkin’s signature dialogue flourishes, and features future TV president Martin Sheen in a supporting role.