There are dozens of fantastic movies about America that you could watch this week to celebrate the country's 243rd birthday. But if you've exhausted Independence Day, Born on the Fourth of July, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, then you've come to the right place.
Because of the Fourth of July's symbolism as the most American of holidays — or perhaps simply because fireworks look so dang good on camera — lots of movies that aren't "about" Independence Day still include major moments that take place on, or reference, the nation's birthday. Here are seven of the best and most surprising.
(The Shining | Warner Bros. | Hulu)
The Shining is one of the greatest Easter egg movies of all time (if you haven't seen Room 237, a documentary about different interpretations of the movie, I highly recommend that too). It's completely understandable if you might have missed one of the film's subtlest details — that the Overlook Ball was a Fourth of July party, as is disclosed by the date on the ominous photo that ends the movie.
Why the Fourth of July? Well, one analysis of The Shining suggests that the film is director Stanley Kubrick's meditation on the genocide of Native Americans. "By so closely linking a date that is arguably the most important in American culture, Kubrick is implicating the audience of being guilty of these things," writes The Artifice.
(Brokeback Mountain | Focus Features | Starz)
Brokeback Mountain takes place over a long and lonely Wyoming summer in 1963. Adapted from Annie Proulx's short story of the same name, the movie has some stark differences from her original piece, including a scene at a Fourth of July celebration when Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) confronts a pair of drunks who are disrupting the festivities.
In the movie, Ennis challenges the men just as the sky lights up in red, white, and blue behind him. In a scene that helped earn the Best Director Oscar that Ang Lee received for the movie, Ennis punches and kicks the men as the fireworks silhouette him as a kind of denim-clad portrait of an American hero.
Only when the camera reverses to show the men cowering and begging to be let go does this portrait sour. "This framing and the scene as a whole cite [Ennis] as an upholder of the very values of conservative America he might otherwise be seen to fail and that, more important, might be seen to fail him," writes Hamilton Carroll in Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity.
(Blow Up | Filmways Pictures)
Riffing on Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 masterpiece Blowup, Brian De Palma's thriller Blow Out (1981) flips the script to find sound technician Jack Terry (John Travolta) unintentionally capturing audio evidence of a presidential candidate's assassination, only to then become the quarry for the killer.
Set during a gritty Philadelphia summer in the days ahead of the Independence Day celebrations, Blow Out is a sizzling keg of politics, serial killers, and patriotic buntings. The dramatic conclusion takes place — when else? — but as the fireworks begin to explode over the city. Travolta gives a career-high performance that makes the film worth watching any time of year.
Legally Blonde 2
Legally Blonde 2 carries the subtitle Red, White, and Blonde, although that's more of a reference to the film's location — Washington, D.C. — than to the patriotic holiday. In this 2003 sequel, perennially underestimated lawyer Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) decides to take on the capital swamp and outlaw animal testing.
While there is a surprising lack of red, white, and blue in the movie, Elle does get a chance to sport a jaunty star-spangled neck scarf. "Oh My God! you look like the Fourth of July!" exclaims Elle's friend, Paulette Bonafonté (Jennifer Coolidge), upon seeing the get-up.
That otherwise throwaway line has become wildly popular, though. It's been emblazoned on T-shirts and even mimicked by Ariana Grande on Jimmy Kimmel Live! What could be more iconic and American than that?
In Jackson Heights
(In Jackson Heights | Zipporah Films | Kanopy)
Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest chroniclers of American life, making films about everything from the state legislature in Idaho to the basic training cycle for U.S. military recruits to the welfare system. One of his greatest projects is 2015's In Jackson Heights, which zooms in on one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the world. Running over three hours, the film depicts even the most mundane aspects of life in the Queens, New York, neighborhood.
While most of these stories are everyday, that doesn't make In Jackson Heights boring (it was named one of the 25 best films of the 21st century so far by The New York Times). The doc is a patient portrait of the ideal — and the irony — of the great American melting pot, featuring immigrants from as far flung as Mexico, Bangladesh, and China. It concludes with two Cuban grandmothers singing as fireworks erupt over New York in the city's annual Fourth of July show. The metaphor might be obvious, but that makes it no less beautiful.
Magic Mike XXL
(Magic Mike XXL | Warner Bros. Pictures | TNT)
Magic Mike XXL is the rare Fourth of July movie that doesn't actually show you the fireworks — well, I suppose there are enough firecrackers elsewhere. At the end of this sequel to Magic Mike, the strippers' final performance segues to the gang hanging out at a boardwalk, presumably celebrating their win (you can hear the crackle of fireworks only at the very end over the music, as the colors reflect off of Channing Tatum's face).
Admittedly, the rest of Magic Mike XXL seems to have little to do with Independence Day; the movie was a Fourth of July release when it came out in 2015, so I suppose the ending was written to be seasonally appropriate. But if Die Hard gets to be a Christmas movie, then you get to use this weekend as an excuse to rewatch Magic Mike XXL. You're welcome.
Rent it on Amazon.
(Zodiac | Paramount Pictures | Netflix)
Zodiac is my pick for David Fincher's best film; it also happens to be a great case-study in Jake Gyllenhaal's crazy eyes. Offhand, the movie — about the decades-long search for one of California's most notorious serial killers — might not seem like it has much to do with America's Independence Day. However, the movie opens with fireworks over Vallejo, California, in 1969, and that night's tragic shooting of Darlene Ferrin, 22, and her friend Mike Mageau, 19.
While Ferrin and Mageau (who survived) were not the Zodiac Killer's first victims, Fincher's story of American violence and obsession is served thematically by the opening, which depicts families celebrating freedom in their front yards as, unbeknownst to them, a serial killer cruises the streets, looking for a victim. Crippling terror and paranoia would soon grip central California as the Zodiac Killer ramped up his attacks and taunts to local media and police.
"The film doesn't really end; it just sort of trails off, its characters dejected, confused and, in many instances, permanently damaged," writes Den of Geek. "[Zodiac's] nihilistic, uneasy ending mirrors the unsettled nature of American society as we bid goodbye to the 1970s and entered an era which, in retrospect, began laying out the roadmap for our current national nightmare."