On July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Every year, Americans celebrate the holiday by drinking large quantities of alcohol, grilling giant slabs of meat and watching gunpowder missiles explode in the sky. Since it’s hot and humid in Michigan today, I’ll be spending the holiday in my cool, dry house, with a world of media at my disposal. So, what to watch on Independence Day? Here are some suggestions.
The original summer blockbuster, Jaws has made generations of people afraid to swim in the ocean. Made for a paltry $9 million, Jaws was released on June 20, 1975 and dominated the box office for weeks. Set around the 4th of July holiday, in the fictional Long Island town of Amity (though it was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts), Jaws pits police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) against Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who is determined to keep those beaches open for the holiday no matter how many tourists have to die.
Jaws is a master-class in the art of building tension. Take the following scene: Brody knows the secret that no one else knows – there’s a killer shark on the loose – and we see things unfold from his perspective. Ordinarily mundane things – children playing in the water, Olivia Newton-John on the radio, a toddler singing “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” while he builds a sandcastle – take on an air of danger. John Williams’ iconic score does a lot of the heavy lifting here, and for his efforts, Williams won the Academy Award, the BAFTA, the Golden Globe and the Grammy.
Brody eventually enlists the help of a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a grizzled old seaman (Robert Shaw, chewing more scenery than the shark), a standoff with the Great White ensues, and one of the greatest unscripted movie lines in history was created.
Jaws would go on to earn a worldwide total of almost half a billion dollars, and was the all-time box office champ until Star Wars dethroned it two years later. Jaws was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound. It lost Best Picture to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and won the rest. Steven Spielberg was reportedly upset over not receiving a Best Director nod, and rightly so; he absolutely should have been nominated. Spielberg created a masterpiece that we still celebrate almost fifty years later, and what better day for my umpteenth rewatch than today?
Perhaps not the most obvious choice, but Zodiac is one of the first things that came to my mind when I started working on this piece. This criminally underrated 2007 David Fincher film tells the story of one of the most infamous unsolved cases ever: the hunt for the Zodiac killer. The film’s opening scene takes place on July 4, 1969, and it’s a doozy. A couple named Darlene and Mike are at a Lover’s Lane and are menaced by a man that Darlene may or may not know (her husband? someone else?). We know things are going to end badly for these two. Every bone in your body is screaming at them to just drive away, but they don’t, and when the gunshots begin, we hear the strains of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. The violence – sudden and shocking – is exactly what we’re expecting, but somehow stills surprises us. The entire sequence last about six minutes and it is exquisite; we are on Fincher’s hook for the next two and a half hours.
Hamilton, the Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning musical, features actors of color portraying the lily-white founding fathers and other historical figures. The brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is a unique blend of hip-hop, R&B, soul and traditional show tunes. Yes, it’s as good as you’ve heard; I was fortunate enough to see the show in Chicago a few years ago. You can watch a filmed version of Hamilton on Disney+ or listen to the Broadway Cast Recording on Spotify.
- Independence Day
This time around, the villains aren’t the British, but a race of aliens determined to destroy humanity. Independence Day is as big and silly as Hollywood blockbusters come, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sometimes you just need to watch Will Smith punch an alien in the face. Plus, we get Jeff Goldblum and a president played by Bill Pullman, who delivers a stirring speech that makes us proud to be American – and human.
- Stranger Things 3
Not only was Stranger Things 3 released on July 4th (2019), but the action takes place around the holiday as well. We’re treated to more than one fireworks display – the official fireworks of the county fair, and the unofficial pyrotechnics at the Starcourt Mall. While Mike and Nancy (and the rest of the gang) prepare to battle the Mind Flayer at the mall, the rest of the Wheeler family sits atop the ferris wheel (“the best seats in the house”). When little Holly says “Mom, the trees are moving”, we know that the show has only just begun.
- Born on the Fourth of July
There is no greater freedom guaranteed by our constitution than freedom of speech; there’s a reason why it’s the First Amendment. Ron Kovic, born on July 4, 1946, returned from his second tour of duty in Vietnam paralyzed from the chest down. He became a staunch anti-war activist, and his 1976 memoir of the same name became the basis for this Oliver Stone film. Starring Tom Cruise (in his first Oscar-nominated role) as Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July was a commercial and critical success, becoming the tenth highest-grossing film of 1989 and earning a total of eight Oscar nominations (it won two awards, Best Director and Best Film Editing).
- A League of Their Own
Baseball is the All-American sport, and while many fine films have been made about baseball, the most patriotic baseball film happens to also be my favorite. A League of Their Own tells the story of the women of the AAGPBL (All-American Girls Professional Baseball League), who did their patriotic duty while the men of baseball were off fighting WWII. The League – founded in 1943 by Philip K. Wrigley – was real, and though the film is fiction, many of the characters were inspired by the women of the actual league. The film – directed by Penny Marshall and starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Tom Hanks – is a delight; the baseball sequences are thrilling, and there’s humor and heart in every frame.
- Yankee Doodle Dandy
A musical biography of entertainer and songwriter George M. Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy stars James Cagney as Cohan, the father of American musical comedy and the composer of such patriotic hits as “Over There”, “A Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag”. The film was a huge success and was nominated for eight Academy Awards; it won three, including Best Actor for Cagney (it lost Best Picture to Mrs. Miniver). If you only know Cagney from gangster movies like The Public Enemy, you’re in for a treat.
- National Treasure
Cryptologist and treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is looking for the greatest hidden treasure in history, buried by American Freemasons during the Revolutionary War. The map to the treasure is on the back of the Declaration of Independence, naturally, so all Gates has to do is steal it. National Treasure is trashy fun – not a particularly good movie, but entertaining nonetheless, which makes it perfect for holiday viewing.