Ah, Independence Day! It’s that time of the year when we celebrate the God-ordained fact that America is the greatest country on Earth. I mean, it is the greatest country on Earth, right? Right?!
Oh, you pathetic, naïve fool – you’re obviously not a Hollywood screenwriter. Those of us who sit in movie theaters all day know the truth: All politicians are corrupt, the country is falling apart, everything is a big conspiracy, and the government is hiding a flying saucer somewhere in New Mexico. So just before we go out to mow the grassy knoll, here’s a look at some films that expose the seedier side of life in this great country of ours.
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Arguably the best of the Jack Ryan films has Harrison Ford out to expose an illegal military operation in Central America. Unfortunately, authorization for the op comes from the Oval Office, and, when it’s about to be discovered, the prez leaves U.S. soldiers hanging in the wind. Clear and Present Danger profits from a trio of great performances: Ford as the reluctant hero, Willem Dafoe as an intense CIA operative and Joaquim De Almeida as a treacherous drug lieutenant with aspirations of power.
Point of No Return (1993)
Lithe little Bridget Fonda goes punk in this film about an underground sect of assassins sponsored by – surprise! – the U.S. government. The film is an American remake of the Luc Besson French production La Femme Nikita, though it’s not as much of a letdown as everyone says. Gabriel Byrne is nicely understated as the mentor who teaches Fonda how to gun down all the unwanted people in society (the scene in the restaurant is especially chilling), and Dermot Mulroney is the man she falls in love with who just doesn’t seem to notice that his girlfriend kills people for a living.
Falling Down (1993)
Falling Down tells the story of a 40-something man (Michael Douglas) who flips out during a traffic jam and starts walking across L.A. to get to the estranged wife and child the court has forbidden him to see. On the way he meets gang members and neo-Nazis and other denizens of urban America while a soon-to-be-retired detective (Robert Duvall) tries to stop him. We gradually learn that the man lives with his mother, has been downsized, and has suddenly realized that the American Dream has played him for a fool and left him useless. The film was originally labeled as racist, but it’s actually a startling look at one white man’s disillusionment with a society that has tossed him aside.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
A spy thriller classic. Robert Redford is Condor – a bookish CIA agent who reads spy novels for a living. When he files a report about a Middle Eastern operation he’s read about, someone takes it seriously. When Condor returns from lunch one day, everyone in his office is dead and people are following him. He kidnaps Faye Dunaway, turns the tables on his pursuers, and – not surprisingly – traces the operation back to the upper echelon of the CIA. The film followed on the heels of Watergate, and consequently, the main theme is how men in power disregard everyone else to fulfill their militaristic ideals. The ending is deliciously nihilistic and ambiguous.
All the President’s Men (1976)
There’s no violence, no car chases, no gunfire, no physical conflict of any kind, yet All The President’s Men is a thrilling look into the greatest breach of public trust this country has ever known. The film follows the two real-life Washington Post reporters – Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) – as they publicly uncover the conspiracy behind the Watergate break-in. They make phone calls, get doors slammed in their faces, argue with their editor (Jason Robards, who won an Oscar), and race across the newsroom floor in some of the best tracking shots ever presented on film. The reality of two inexperienced reporters keeping the public interested long enough to bring down the most powerful man in the world is both absorbing and harrowing at the same time.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
John Voight and Dustin Hoffman are superb as two doomed hustlers living among the grimy underground throng of New York City. Voight is a small-town boy who’s convinced he can make a living as a prostitute to rich New York women, and Hoffman is the inimitable Ratzo Rizzo – a two-bit hood with tuberculosis. The two wander the lonely streets of The Big Apple, living in abandoned buildings and waiting for their big score. It never comes, and the ending leaves the viewer awash in the bloodbath of what used to be the American Dream. Originally rated X for subject matter, Midnight Cowboy went on to win Best Picture, Director and Screenplay.
Soylent Green (1973)
Sure it’s futuristic science fiction, but the premise is just too good to resist. Amid a nasty, overcrowded backdrop, Charlton Heston is a cop investigating the murder of a wealthy businessman. Before long he stumbles onto a nasty secret: Turns out the government is grinding people up and distributing them to the starving masses as the food product Soylent Green (sure helps get rid of those troublesome whistleblowers). Some wrote the film off as campy, but others have called it visionary. The film was immortalized in a Saturday Night Live sketch that had Phil Hartman imitating Heston’s revelatory scene: “Soylent Green is pea-pull! It’s pea-pull!”
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s pivotal film about race relations was violently controversial in 1989 but seems awfully prophetic eight years later. Lee is Mookie the pizza deliverer, who works for Sal (an Oscar-nominated Danny Aiello) in a New York neighborhood. A seemingly trivial incident on a hot day sparks a racial standoff and, eventually, a violent resolution that is either justice or anarchy, depending on your point of view. In the end, nothing is really solved – the neighborhood is worse for the experience and Lee purposely leaves us to wonder if the “right thing” of the title was ever done. The film closes with two quotes: one from Martin Luther King promoting nonviolent protest; the other from Malcolm X suggesting that violence is the only path out of oppression.