This Sunday brings us the Super Bowl, the year’s biggest sporting contest. As always, this year’s event (the XLVIth) will be loaded with ads for some of the biggest films of the year including 21 Jump Street, The Hunger Games, Ferris Bueller II, John Carter, and The Avengers.
Patriots- Team America: World Police (dir. Trey Parker, 2004)
One of the funniest movies of the 2000s, Team America: World Police with its rousing theme, America: Fuck Yeah does what Trey Parker and Matt Stone do best- offer a pitch-perfect satire of an entire genre while taking on controversial subjects in an unpredictable and intelligent manner. Originally meant to be a shot-by-shot puppet parody of The Day After Tomorrow released the day after the terrible global warming film, Team America eventually became an original story that took on Jerry Bruckheimer-style movies to great effect. (The duo would later ridicule the hideous Dennis Quaid/Jake Gyllenhaal/Roland Emmerich feature in the South Park episode Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow.)
Released during the height of George W. Bush-hatred hysteria, Team America wisely doesn’t take the heavy-handed, repetitive, and lazy path trod by so many comedy writers over the past decade. Moreover, even though the films marionette-izes several world leaders (including, the recently deceased and so ronery Kim Jong-il as its main villain), George W. Bush never makes an appearance, and the film always refers to Team America instead of America. Another thing that sets this movie apart from most other politically conscious media products of the 2000s is that even when showing how dangerous Team America could be, it savagely pokes fun at liberals as well, in particular the self-important thespians of the Film Actors Guild. With a world full of dicks, assholes, and pussies, it’s good to know that the reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks of Team America are there.
As a satire of action movies, Team America nails basically every trope of the genre with equal strength. Although the sex scene received the most attention, the film is full of a lot of subtle humor that can only come from an intricate knowledge of how these movies work. From the direction to music selection to pacing to the cheap tactics used to move the plot along, Team America narrows in on not just the soul of these movies but their cells too. And it probably has the best original music since South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut.
Before the film, Parker and Stone had taken on various angles on patriotism and America in South Park with such brilliant episodes as the old school war cartoons throwback Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants and I’m a Little Bit Country, which taught us how the Founding Fathers would view the debate over the war in Iraq. Since then, Team America was remade as the live-action 2009 feature, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The valmorphanized supersuits, the wooden lead with the tragic past making his depressed motorcycle ride after the team splits up, the attack on Paris, the attack on the secret base, the sword fighting, the singing- all also experienced by Channing Tatum and his gang of borderline-incompetent morons.
Patriots- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (dir. Frank Capra, 1939)
In Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) quotes Samuel Johnson in saying that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” And it’s hard to argue that assessment whether in World War I or 2012. When you watch or listen to things that carry the banner of “patriotic,” there’s usually something uncomfortable and uncharmingly hokey about them. The combination of their simplicity about how the world works mixed with an inability to recognize the flaws in their own nation seems occasionally antagonistic and often ridiculously out of date even when made in modern times. However, Frank Capra managed to pull off the concept of patriotism with resounding success in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
What sets Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) apart from the John Waynes of later years is that he cares more about what the flag represents than the flag itself. His love of his country has nothing to do with the country itself, but its ideals. As many patriotic films take place during war, it becomes easy to imagine patriotism as an excuse to satisfy the hero’s bloodlust or own quest for glory, but Mr. Smith never appears to suffer from these ulterior motives. He always seems to put the country first, and he does so through his words alone. Okay, he uses his fists once.
Even though Mr. Smith’s view of how government should work might seem naïve and lacking in specifics and say, why is he hanging around with young boys so much anyway?, there’s still something genuine in him than is lacking in most other American heroes. Part of the reason for this is that Mr. Smith is thankfully not a redemption story. He begins as a good guy and retains his integrity throughout the film. His belief in government might waver, but his belief in what the government should stand for does not. Because of this, his ideals do not come across as phony or as the result of some Paul from Damascus moment; it’s because they are something that he knows and has always known to be true. Mr. Smith cares more about the potential good that government can do over politics itself, and the movie does not side with any political group. Politicians can be bad no matter their affiliation, and they can be good no matter what side they’re on.
The reason that Mr. Smith ranks as probably the greatest of patriotic of movies is that it doesn’t argue that America is best, but rather it makes the case for why its values are the best for mankind. Unfortunately, it lacks a shifty eyed dog, silly hat montage, and the impaling of the President with the American flag.
Giants- The Amazing Colossal Man (dir. Bert I. Gordon, 1957)
From the creator of such classic 1950s B-movie schlock (and Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder) as Beginning of the End, Earth vs. The Spider, and Village of the Giants comes The Amazing Colossal Man. While waiting in his trench after a seemingly failed nuclear test, Lt. Col. Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan) rushes onto the field to rescue a downed plane only to be blasted by the explosion. Unlike Dr. Bruce Banner, Manning doesn’t successfully complete his rescue, but he does become a monster- a man who is both amazing and colossal. The radiation causes his cells to constantly increase in size, except for his heart, which grows at a reduced rate. It’s science from the 1950s, just go with it.
Like all Frankenstein’s Monster-ian individuals, Manning eventually becomes insane and violent. Not the least reason probably being that the government doctor assigned to his case constantly (and successfully) hits on his fiancé Carol (Cathy Downs). After escaping from a government facility, Manning takes to the Las Vegas strip where he torments The Sands and other casinos, as well as soldiers sent to kill him; he also kills a man with a comically oversized novelty syringe. Eventually, he falls into the Hoover Dam presumably to his death.
Except the success of the movie allowed Gordon to bring back Manning the following year with a whole new cast and star in the sequel War of the Colossal Beast, which MST3K not only mocked but paired with one of its all-time most popular shorts, Mr. B. Natural.
Patriots- Rocky IV (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 1985)
It doesn’t get much more patriotic than watching American hero Rocky Balboa beat an enormous Russian to a pulp at the height of the Cold War. By this time, the Rocky formula was pretty well established: always the underdog, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) overcomes insurmountable odds to beat the other (better) boxer and prove that the heart of a lion is all it takes to win. Rocky IV, though, is different for a number of reasons. First, despite being retired, Rocky challenges Drago (Dolph Lundgren) to a match to avenge his friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) who died in the ring while fighting the mountain-esque Soviet. In the first three films, Rocky was always approached first, but here he makes the first move, a desperate man looking to settle a score.
Second, the film’s climactic fight, and really the second half of the film, takes place in the Soviet Union where Rocky isn’t the only one thrust into a foreign land. American audiences were likely rooting even harder for Rocky to win since they were being forced to watch a beloved icon battle an enemy on his own soil.
Rocky IV was Stallone’s third time pulling directorial duties in the franchise (he had written all four) and his possibly monetary motivations ended up giving us one of the greatest depictions of patriotism Hollywood has ever seen.
Patriots- The People vs. Larry Flynt (dir. Milos Forman, 1996)
Love him or hate him, Larry Flynt knows what it means to be an American. Next to Lenny Bruce, Flynt is possibly one of the staunchest proponents of the First Amendment that our country has ever seen. The People vs. Larry Flynt, while not a perfect film, manages to adequately capture the public and private struggles the boisterous publisher faced during the early years of his magazine, Hustler.
Giving one of his greatest performances, Woody Harrelson plays Flynt as equal parts free speech pioneer and insolent child who craves attention. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the film covers a large chunk of history in a relatively short time. Flynt’s highly publicized obscenity trials are some of the least interesting things to happen to the man who grew up a moonshiner’s son and just wanted to give the public what they wanted.
The People vs. Larry Flynt is a terrific example of both the strengths and the weaknesses of our legal system. But, without people like Larry Flynt, we wouldn’t know what they were.
Patriots- Independence Day (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1996)
In the same year, Will Smith became a worldwide movie star in a little movie called Independence Day. Arguably jump starting the current era of summer blockbuster movies, Independence Day was not just a big budget sci-fi vehicle to show how creatively the filmmakers could destroy miniature models of cities and famous landmarks (though they did that pretty well). The movie is really a meditation on what it means to be an American. It means that regardless of an advanced alien civilization’s ability to travel across the universe and coordinate global attacks with ships impervious to human weapons, the U.S. of A. will be the ones to bring them down single-handedly, thank you very much.
In reality, the movie launched not only the Fresh Prince’s movie career, but also the battle to win the July 4th weekend box office. Audiences hadn’t seen a movie like Independence Day before, one that was not only a massive display of special effects ingenuity, but also a solid work of filmmaking with a strong story and sympathetic characters. Studios have been attempting to match its success ever since.
Giants- The Princess Bride (dir. Rob Reiner, 1987)
For good reason, The Princess Bride is one of the most beloved movies of all time. It’s filled with wonderful characters played by brilliant actors; intelligent comedy, both witty dialogue and perfectly-timed slapstick; and some of the most quotable lines in Hollywood history (“Have fun storming the castle!”).
One character that ties us directly to the heart of the story, though, is Fezzik, played with childlike innocence by Andre the Giant. Fezzik is a simple, second-hand thug who enjoys rhyming and pleasing everyone around him. Even though he stood over seven feet tall, Andre the Giant (born Andre Rene Roussimoff) seemed as gentle as a puppy. Exploited by Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) for his sheer size and strength, Fezzik is the epitome of a gentle giant, always reticent to inflict pain of any kind.
In a movie filled with memorable performances, Andre the Giant stands out (no pun intended) because we don’t remember Fezzik as a physically intimidating character. Instead, we fondly think of him as an 60-pound Labrador Retriever who just wants to jump on your lap, not realizing he’s no longer a puppy.