Hollywood has a long history of making films that exemplify the “best” of what this country strives to be. Whether it’s a textile worker’s struggle to earn a decent wage or seven courageous men who volunteered to be strapped to a rocket and hurled into space. It might even be a country preacher watching over his flock in a small western town over a century ago.
With America’s favorite patriotic holiday right around the corner, we examine several movies that define what it means to be an American and strive to create a better life.
“Norma Rae” (1979). Sally Field gives the performance of her career as the fictionalized version of union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton in “Norma Rae.” Fed up with the horrible working conditions at the North Carolina cotton mill in which she works, Rae begins pushing back against management and faces serious consequences. A timeless crowd-pleaser in every sense, Field’s command is matched by her co-stars (Beau Bridges and Ron Leibman) and all of it falls under the assured directorial hand of the venerable Martin Ritt. Perhaps most notable in today’s America is Rae’s rocky, hard-won journey from feeling powerless in the direction of her life, to her unerring resolve to succeed on her own terms. She is determined to fight, no matter the cost.
“Stars in My Crown” (1950). A small, shimmering Western from the enormously talented Jacques Tourner, “Stars in My Crown” follows Joel McCrea as Josiah Gray, a preacher arriving in a tumbleweed town who manages to wrangle control of the wild citizens through nonviolent means. Josiah’s greatest test comes when a racist local business magnate (Ed Begley) tries to seize the land of freed slave Uncle Famous (played by the remarkable Juano Hernandez). Gray anticipates the violent threat to come, and counters their show of force by appealing to each man in the mob and shaming them personally for their bigotry. But, in a telling moment, Gray secretly has armed men perched in the hills, in case his plea for peace doesn’t work. He’s idealistic, but not afraid of getting his hands dirty. A classic and optimistic allegory of the American West, and the many ways in which this country has emerged from painful conflict into an uncertain future.
In 1957, seven test pilots volunteered to become the first Americans in space demonstrating they had “the right stuff.” Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter and Gordo Cooper ascended into the heavens on journeys that lasted from 15 minutes (Shepard) to just under eight days (Cooper). Along with Deke Slayton, who was not allowed to enter space due to a heart condition, they became known as the Mercury Seven. “The Right Stuff” (1983), directed by Philip Kaufman and based on the award-winning best-seller by author Tom Wolfe, chronicles their selection and training in a race to beat the Russians into space. But the true backbone of this epic adventure is the subplot detailing the life of America’s greatest test pilot, Chuck Yeager. On Oct. 14, 1947, Yeager piloting the rocket propelled Bell XS-1became the first person to break the sound barrier, flying at Mach-1, a speed of 767.3 MPH. Thus begins a series of record breaking (and hair-raising) flights that lasted for almost 20 years.
“The Right Stuff” has an all-star cast and was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. It won four Oscars.
My first recommendation was a film about seven white males who flew into space. My second recommendation is a film “Hidden Figures” (2016) about three black women who made it possible for the Mercury Seven (and countless other astronauts) to successfully complete their space missions and return home safely. The film tells the story of the brilliant Katherine Goble Johnson portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who provided the calculations, without the assistance of computers, for all of NASA’s flights into space. They completed these immensely difficult and exacting computations in their heads using notebooks and pencils. Yet they had to overcome daily encounters with racism and prejudice, including separate eating and bathroom accommodations and bullying from their male counterparts. Their singular focus on “the mission” against overwhelming odds remains an impressive achievement. The film, based on the best selling book by Margot Lee Shetterly, was nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend one or two old chestnuts for your viewing pleasure. You can’t go wrong with Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) or James Cagney in his Oscar-winning performance as George M. Cohen in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942).
All films available are through Amazon Prime Video or YouTube.
(This column is written jointly by a baby boomer, Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.)