It’s that time of year when we Americans do some hardcore self-loving. Parades, barbeques, state fairs, fireworks, drunkenly screaming, “Don’t tread on me!”—we’ll do anything and everything we can to really pat ourselves on the back for that revolution of yore. And what better way to get in the red, white and blue spirit than by pre-gaming with some patriotic movies?
You could opt for movies that sincerely make you proud to be an American, but in these days of perpetual irony, isn’t that a little too on the nose? Rather, try out a postmodern Independence Day this year, by selecting from any of these decidedly awkward offerings. Uncomfortably high levels of patriotic fervor? Check. Horribly depressing takes on the land of liberty? Check. Aliens and parasites? Check and check. Without further ado, here are five strange Fourth of July films.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Denizens of the 1940s and 1950s couldn’t get enough of marching bands and musical spectaculars in their homages to America (perhaps to try to drown out the nation’s collective PTSD from World War II?). And no movie better encapsulated this spirited fervor than Yankee Doodle Dandy.
This movie stars James Cagney as rough and tumble composer, George M. Cohan, who is literally pegged as being born on the Fourth of July. This patriotic birthright combines with vaudeville grandeur to create one over-the-top nationalistic musical performance after another, to the point that it’s downright painful to watch through modern eyes. But hey, that era reflects the last war the U.S. equivocally won (damn insurgencies), so I guess they were entitled to some simplistic “hell yeah!” celebration.
This one’s a quirky creature. Still in the throes of American’s musical mania, this 1970s creation adds an element of self-awareness and humor. Which is kind of a weird when combined with a story about heavily pantalooned Founding Fathers and the birth of America—but it’s an endearing weirdness.
Here the leaders of the world’s first lasting democracy don’t pull any punches with their larger-than-life personalities and raucous debates with each other. Much of which, of course, is put to song. Really, who doesn’t like the idea of a baritone Benjamin Franklin?
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Sure to deflate your patriotic spirit, this movie is like a brass-knuckle punch to Uncle Sam’s gut. It also takes on the theme of being born on the Fourth of July—but to bitter irony. Tom Cruise acts out the true-life story of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam vet paralyzed from the chest down by a gunshot sustained in battle. The film shoves your face into the unsavory elements of his disturbing physical recovery in a poorly-run VA hospital, and his continued mental and physical anguish for years afterward. Catheters and Mexican prostitutes ensue.
The experience ultimately turns him into an outspoken critic of the war who falls deeply in love with the Democratic party—which awkwardly happens to be the same party that got the country into the war to begin with (Shhh—I guess Cruise/Kovic doesn’t know!). This movie is all kinds of depressing.
Independence Day (1996)
And we’re back to some good-old fashioned patriotic dualism, this time in the form of invading aliens vs. the U.S. (technically the world, but pretty much the U.S.). The aliens take us by surprise and destroy most major cities, leaving survivors to rally a last-ditch effort which just happens to fall on the Fourth of July. When humanity faces sudden destruction from extraterrestrial marauders, our country’s liberation from Britain suddenly seems downright insignificant.
The world saving essentially comes down to three people: A jet pilot extraordinaire played by Will Smith, a Jewish computer genius played by Jeff Goldblum and the goddamn Commander in Chief of these United States, played by Bill Pullman. With this triad of American stereotypes, the aliens clearly don’t have a prayer.
The Bay (2012)
Back to bummer town. In this thriller, what starts off as a merry small-town celebration of our nation’s founding turns into a horrific epidemic of parasites that devour victims from the inside out. A local journalist and her truth-seeking compadres discover the town’s bay has been polluted by an unholy amount of poultry refuse from a nearby chicken plant. Said waste has critically altered the local ecosystem. The result: Mutant isopods from hell. Bet the residents aren’t so happy about seceding from Britain now, what with its sweet sweet nationalized health care.
The journalism crew explains all this via secretive documentary footage, so as not to bring notice to themselves in light of the ongoing massive government conspiracy (of course) to keep the pollution and resulting community genocide a secret. Needless to say, it’s just the sort of plotline that makes you want to kick back with a cold one and toast to the Star-Spangled Banner.
If these movies don’t set the stage for a weird Fourth of July, I don’t know what will. No need to thank me—just doing my civic duty.
Image: Wikimedia Commons