Democracy’s Dozen: 12 films for Independence Day

To celebrate the Fourth of July, here are 12 star-spangled films to make our patriotic hearts swell – and to help us to reflect upon what it means to be an American.


John Adams
Episode 2: “Independence”

“The break is made, and now our work begins. You will think me transported with enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these states. It is the will of Heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever. It may be the will of Heaven that America shall suffer calamities still more wasting and distresses yet more dreadful. Yet through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory and that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction.”Paul Giamatti as John Adams

The second part of HBO’s seven-episode miniseries about the founding father chronicles Adams’ fateful work in the Continental Congress in 1775 and 1776, when he and allies successfully built momentum among the body for declaring independence from Great Britain. Paul Giamatti, who plays Adams, brings the “Atlas of Independence” to life in all his – as Adams himself put it – “obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular” glory.

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Further viewing: The Patriot (2000), Sons of Liberty (2015)


“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress! And by God, I have had this Congress! For ten years, King George and his Parliament have gulled, cullied, and diddled these colonies with their illegal taxes! Stamp Acts, Townshend Acts, Sugar Acts, Tea Acts! And when we dared stand up like men, they have stopped our trade, seized our ships, blockaded our ports, burned our towns, and spilled our blood! And still, this Congress refuses to grant any of my proposals on independence, even so much as the courtesy of open debate! Good God, what in hell are you waiting for?” – William Daniels as John Adams

A campy musical reenactment of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, this American classic portrays the founders as a motley group, complete with off-color humor, archaic quips, and early ‘70s vernacular. This humorous depiction of the Continental Congress during that pivotal summer of independence puts more than a few challenges in front of our heroes, but eventually they get in tune and sign the Declaration. The rest, as they say, is (slightly revised for Hollywood) history.

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Further viewing: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Sergeant York (1941)


“How can I hold that all men are created equal when here before me stands stinking the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio? Proof that some men are inferior. Endowed by their maker with dim wits, impermeable to reason, with cold pallid slime in their veins instead of hot red blood. You are more reptile than man, George, so low and flat that the foot of man is incapable of crushing you.” – Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens

While Lincoln clearly centers on the iconic president and the difficult choices he must make during the final days of the Civil War, the most powerful scenes in this Steven Spielberg epic are actually during the fierce debate in the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s where – among the name-calling and insults, through the chaos and skullduggery – democracy steadily, if messily, trudges forward. The film is a powerful reminder of just how fragile (and just how powerful) our Union, and our attitudes toward democracy, can be.

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Further viewing: Glory (1989), Free State of Jones (2016), Abraham Lincoln (1930)


“Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost, and will never lose a war – because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” – George C. Scott as Gen. George S. Patton

Released during the height of Vietnam War, Patton bucked the growing national sentiment against U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia by venerating military principle, embodied in the contradictory and complex World War II general. A nearly three-hour journey into the various motivations of old “Blood and Guts,” Patton is ultimately an epic effort that stands alone among American war movies.

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Further viewing: The Last Days of Patton (1986)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask. Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties.” – James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

Frank Capra’s morality play focuses on Jefferson Smith, an earnest, salt-of-the-Earth fella who, by hook and by crook, is appointed to the U.S. Senate. To his surprise, Smith quickly gets a lesson in Washington graft, greed, and craven motivations. Eventually, he famously decides to stand up for his version of America, lauding the principles of decency, integrity and fighting for what’s right, despite the political cost. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is both cynical and optimistic, but above all, it offers optimism in these United States – and the notion that one person truly can make a difference.

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Further viewing: All the King’s Men (1949), The Candidate (1972), Head of State (2003)

Good Night, and Good Luck

“The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his; he didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” – David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow

In Good Night, and Good Luck – a chronicle of the 1953 battle between CBS News’ Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the famed newsman implicates McCarthyism with that famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In Murrow’s view, McCarthy is a symptom, not the cause, of a much deeper issue. The “Red Scare” is not McCarthy’s fault, necessarily, but by leveraging Americans’ concerns into fame, fortune and power, he comes to embody a shameful era. In addition to being a love letter to the strength of a free and fearless press, Good Night, and Good Luck is also a sober reminder that Americans must be vigilant in the face of those who would exploit fear and anxiety for political gain.

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Further viewing: All The President’s Men (1976), The Post (2018)

Thirteen Days

“If the sun comes up tomorrow, it is only because of men of good will. That is all there is between us and the devil.” – Kevin Costner as Kenny O’ Donnell

Fascinating in its depiction of presidential leadership in action, Thirteen Days is the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of the Kennedy White House – specifically, JFK adviser O’ Donnell. As military advisers continue to push the president  to strike Cuba (and setting in motion events that could in all likelihood lead to World War III), Thirteen Days is an example of how American “soft power” and diplomacy – not full-on military might and brinksmanship – saved the world from nuclear winter.

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Further viewing: Rush to Judgment (1967), JFK (1991)

Born on the Fourth of July

“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America.” – Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic

If Patton is the North Pole of the world of American military movies, then Born on the Fourth of July is its South Pole. The second in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy is a biopic of Ron Kovic, paralyzed from the chest down during battle, and his metamorphosis from gung-ho patriot to anti-war activist. Through Kovic, the film establishes the moral and political framework that led the United States into Southeast Asia, and then, the enormous aftershocks of that reasoning. Born on the Fourth of July isn’t subtle; in Kovic, Stone bluntly creates a modern parable about the collapse of patriotic idealism. This film isn’t for everyone. There’s no doubt, though, that it will make you think.

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Further viewing: Platoon (1986), Heaven & Earth (1993)

The Right Stuff

“Monkeys? You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys, they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV. Ol’ Gus (Grissom), he did all right.” – Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager

An irreverent illustration of the rise of the U.S. space program told through the Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff is a demonstration of bravery, daring, and heroism. All the giants of the early days of space flight are there: Shepard, Glenn, Cooper, Grissom, Slayton – and some swaggering Chuck Yeager thrown in for good measure. This three-hour epic set the standard for spaceflight movies, with its myth-making mix of sentimentality, scientific ingenuity, and good ol’ American toughness. Buckle in for a long ride – at 194 minutes, you experience a journey that is as ambitious and experimental as a film as it was to put Americans into space in 1962.

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Further viewing: Hidden Figures (2016), Apollo 13 (1996), First Man (2019)


“Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.” – Kurt Russell as Coach Herb Brooks

In 1980, a team of college students pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history by defeating the greatest hockey team in the world, the Soviet Union – and lifted the malaise of an entire nation. Miracle, which recreates Brooks’ and the USA’s inspiring sprint to the gold medal, has plenty of on-ice action. But the most intense scenes are when the cagey manager builds, then molds his team into a unit greater than the sum of its parts. In the end, the young Americans become a family of sorts – a family of underdogs that made Olympic history. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!

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Further viewing: Rocky IV (1985), Race (2016)

The American President

“We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. And wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them, she’s to blame for their lot in life, and you go on television and you call her a whore. Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, ’cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league.” – Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd

Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, The American President is in many ways a typical romantic comedy, except this time it’s set at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And it’s an entertaining ride that, some 24 years on, could be seen as a prototype for Sorkin’s The West Wing (heck, Martin Sheen is even in it, though ‘only’ as the president’s chief of staff). Through the rom-com tropes, clever retorts, and the West Wing staff’s obsession over public opinion polls, the film has a lingering moral message for presidents and regular people alike: To thine own self be true. Nothing is more American than that.

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Further viewing: Dave (1993), The Distinguished Gentleman (1995)

Zero Dark Thirty

“Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and velcro and all your gear BS. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they’re using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there. And you’re going to kill him for me.” – Jessica Chastain as Maya

We end our list with this gripping portrayal of the 10-year pursuit of Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. It winds through “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists, chilling high-tech surveillance, and finally, a pulse-pounding re-enactment of the mission that led to his death in Pakistan at the hands of SEAL Team Six. In Chastain’s portrayal of Maya, an assiduous CIA agent determined to bring bin Laden to justice, and in the astonishing assault on Abbottabad, Zero Dark Thirty displays American perseverance and grit, even – and especially – amid unspeakable tragedy. 

Watch it

Further viewing: World Trade Center (2006), Flight 93 (2006)

Related Articles

This year, do the Fourth differently

Fireworks and BBQ? You bet! Reflection and discussion? That, too, is as American as apple pie. Spend part of your Independence Day gathering with purpose.

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