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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: June 27, 2017

Movies about American patriotism range from racist to honest

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Algenis Perez Soto in "Sugar," about a Dominican baseball player. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Algenis Perez Soto in “Sugar,” about a Dominican baseball player.
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Patriotism is allegiance to a dream. Which isn’t to say that love of country is an illusion – it’s more that we get moved to pledge ourselves to an ideal of what America is. And ideals are crafted by us, so, necessarily, the visions we have of America are as messed up as we are, individually and collectively.

Nowhere is this blinkered conception of patriotism so pronounced as in the movies. After all, movies are our dreams writ 20 feet high, our every preconception, assumption and desperate yearning hope rendered in the swirl of action, music and beautiful people – sometimes hanging off of the landing gear of a rising helicopter.

Movies are symbols and stock characters and earnest pronouncements, all combined to produce the desired reaction. When it’s done badly, the narrative plinks tunelessly, like someone learning to play the piano by memorizing rote sequences of the keys. When it’s done well, there’s soul in the music, and we forget about everything but the swelling in our chests at the thought of what America could be, what it could mean.

It’s an illusion that inspires us to make it real.

And, sure, some would-be triumphant cinematic visions of American greatness are crap. Going right back to the first generally acknowledged “best American Film of all time,” D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” essentially invented much of the visual language of the movies but tells its story of American strength in the face of the Civil War through the explicit language of white supremacy. (It’s based on – and was originally titled after – a racist’s novel called “The Clansman,” for crying out loud.) And before trotting out the “well, that was then” argument, the NAACP and plenty of others at the time protested the film’s vile racism. But Griffith’s vision of America was spellbinding and ugly in equal measure, and it swept the nation.

Too often, in fact, the movies have built their patriotism on top of our worst qualities and actions. Ask a Native American about Errol Flynn’s dashing, heroic General Custer in the gung-ho Western “They Died with Their Boots On,” or a Somalian immigrant about how Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” similarly tells a tale of U.S. military heroism by portraying the Somali people as a faceless swarm of zombie-like killers. The seductive power of the movies builds the American dream up by, again, too often, tearing “others” down.

So, then, what’s a genuinely patriotic movie? It’s an important question for anyone who loves both the movies and America, and one that involves celebrating the truths about our country, even if that unsparing glare of the camera makes a simple feel-good time at the theater hard to come by. America is complex and troubled, and always has been, no matter what its movies have traditionally attempted to portray through facile flag-waving and easily digestible homilies.

Chris Cooper in "Matewan," about the plight of West Virginia coal miners. Photo courtesy of Cinecom Pictures

Chris Cooper in “Matewan,” about the plight of West Virginia coal miners.
Photo courtesy of Cinecom Pictures

A movie like director John Sayles’ “Matewan” looks at the deep-rooted prejudices and injustices that plague us while finding hope in the tentative bonds disparate West Virginia coal miners forge in the face of mutual economic oppression. Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is adored and derided in equal measure for its idealistically sentimental hero, a “common man” whose unwavering belief in the American ideal is enough to make corrupt senators collapse in tearful shame. But this so-dubbed “Capra-corn” itself so convincingly spells out that vision of an America redeemed by simple goodness and fair play that it unfailingly makes you believe the dream, almost in spite of yourself. (Ivan Reitman’s 1993 comedy “Dave” is a worthy descendant of the form.)

James Stewart in Frank Capra's classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

James Stewart in Frank Capra’s classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Tom McCarthy’s 2007 film “The Visitor,” Paul Mazursky’s 1984 comedy “Moscow on the Hudson” and the 2008 baseball drama “Sugar” (from directing team Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) are all American immigrant stories that affectingly depict how the idea of America is something of a bait-and-switch – but an ultimately worthwhile one to pursue. They also suggest that simply getting to know one another as people rather than as stereotypical manifestations of our illusions of other cultures will overcome fear and racism, an idealistic part of that American myth that’s needed these days more than ever.

If, as the code of another fine American immigrant put it, our country is founded on the ideals of “truth, justice and the American way,” then being patriotic means pursuing that truth and justice no matter the cost. A film like Alan J. Pakula’s fact-based “All the President’s Men” follows two journalists whose investigation into an American president’s crimes hinges on the testimony of people who, despite their love for their country (and even the president in question), are willing to call out the things that violate the greater spirit of what they believe America is. Real patriotism takes both courage and idealism, qualities the best movies can inspire in us. In spite of everything.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

FRONTIER
Starting Friday: “From Nowhere.” Three undocumented Bronx teens from different countries find their struggles toward citizenship bringing them into conflict with both immigration authorities and their own troubled pasts in this indie drama.

SPACE GALLERY
Wednesday, July 5: “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” This documentary from Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) examines how a small, family-run bank was the only such institution to face charges after the 2008 financial crisis, and how the Chinese immigrant Sung family sought to clear their name. Co-presented with the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine.

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