20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
En español | After the last burger’s been flipped and the final firework has fizzled out, what could possibly be better than settling in with a movie to remind you of the real meaning of the Fourth of July? From Lincoln and Hamilton to the quiet heroism of Hidden Figures and Chris Evans as Captain America, we’ve got 20 great films that are just perfect for the long weekend. Happy Independence Day, America!
A League of Their Own (1992)
What could be more American than baseball? How about Tom Hanks? Well, here you get both. Hanks plays the hard-drinking manager of the Rockford Peaches, an all-female baseball team that entertains the game’s fans while the fellas are off fighting in WWII. The roster includes Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Geena Davis, who are all all-stars. Director Penny Marshall manages to make the comedy about something more than laughs or baseball. It’s about women finding their voices and sisterhood through sports even if “there’s no crying in baseball!”
In the Heights (2021)
OK, so this big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical doesn’t have any specific connection to July Fourth. But it does take place in the sizzling heat of summer and it tackles a subject that really couldn’t be more American: the immigrant experience. Set in New York City’s largely Latino Washington Heights, this upbeat treat is a sunny, moving, infectious and incisive love letter to a vibrant neighborhood. From the corner bodega to the fire hydrant-soaked streets that crackle with energy and life, this instant classic couldn’t be a more timely balm showing us how love and song form a community.
Where to watch: HBO Max
Independence Day (1996)
Don’t mess with the stars and stripes — or blow up the White House for that matter! That’s the rah-rah message that turned this tongue-in-cheek Will Smith/Jeff Goldblum alien invasion spectacle into one of the biggest summer blockbusters of the ’90s. Come to see Smith punch an alien in the face; stay for Bill Pullman’s stirring Fourth of July speech as the American president.
Lin Manuel-Miranda’s long-running impossible-to-get ticket on Broadway will be exclusively available to stream on Disney+. And it’s hard to imagine a better way to experience what it means to be an American. A taped production of his historical hip-hop hit musical, Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton (for those who have been living under a rock for the past six years) tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton through a modern, from-the-streets lens.
Where to watch: Disney+
Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick star in this heroic account of one of our country’s more overlooked Civil War chapters — the story of the all-Black 54th regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Washington’s quiet intensity and fiery courage raises the hairs on the back of your neck in this important, urgent historical corrective from director Edward Zwick.
Speaking of inspiring American presidents with a flair for oratory… Daniel Day-Lewis deservedly won his third Oscar for his eerily transformative portrayal of our 16th president. Directed by Steven Spielberg, this epic in miniature doesn’t try to capture the full, cradle-to-grave sweep of Lincoln’s remarkable life, rather it zeroes in on his battle to pass the 13 Amendment, ending slavery. A modern American masterpiece.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Some American heroes are household names out of the gate (see Lincoln, Hamilton and the Mercury astronauts); others do their jobs in anonymity until history hopefully discovers them later. In this inspirational true-life drama about a group of female African American mathematicians who toiled in obscurity for NASA during the space race, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae and Taraji P. Henson soar below the radar as the brains behind one of NASA’s greatest moments.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The combination of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would seem to be an Independence Day match made in heaven. And so it is with this harrowing and humane WWII film. Kicking off with the D-Day assault on Normandy, rendered with almost unbearable white-knuckle realism, Saving Private Ryan shows us a small group of soldiers embarking on one noble mission when all around them is chaos and confusion. Is this the greatest WWII movie ever made? Maybe, maybe not. But I have a hard time thinking of a better one.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Tom Cruise earned his first Oscar nomination for playing Ron Kovic, a real-life paralyzed Vietnam vet-turned-anti-war- protester, in Oliver Stone’s searing morality play. Full of heartache, sorrow and righteous anger, Born on the Fourth of July is not only a showcase for its leading man, who until then had been pigeonholed as nothing more than an easy-on-the-eyes movie star, it’s also a reminder that sometimes disagreeing with your country can be the ultimate expression of patriotism.
The Right Stuff (1983)
As divided as our nation was in the 1960s, the one thing that seemed to unite us was our quest to explore the heavens. Based on Tom Wolfe’s novelistic account of the triumphs and failures of the first wave of daredevil Mercury astronauts, director Philip Kaufman’s epic is a reminder of America’s ingenuity and ambition. A star-studded cast that includes Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn and Dennis Quaid doesn’t hurt either.
Like all birthdays, the Fourth of July is an opportunity not only to reflect on where we’re going but also where we’ve been. Sometimes that sort of reckoning can be both painful and hopeful. Take director Ava Duvernay’s Selma — a stirring and beautifully realized recreation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. This is a powerful and necessary film about how far we have come and how far we still have to go.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Is this the greatest movie from the banner Hollywood year of 1939? Well, with The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and Stagecoach, it’s no easy call. But it’s definitely the most inspiring, thanks to Jimmy Stewart’s indelible performance as an idealistic young senator who refuses to compromise his homespun principles for jaded political expedience. Directed by Frank Capra, no stranger to stories about the American everyman, this is a movie that will restore your faith in democracy.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Arguably the best installment in the first wave of Marvel movies, this red, white and blue origin story about how WWII G.I. Steve Rogers became Captain America has a pulpy realism and lack of flash that feels like an antidote to the superhero adventures to come later. Chris Evans’ solo coming-out party as the patriotic Cap pits him against the evil Hydra, but it also somehow manages to feel like a lost Gary Cooper film.
The alpha and omega of Hollywood summer blockbusters, Steven Spielberg’s Great White adventure pits three men (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw as the Ahab-like Quint) against nature’s deadliest killing machine. This is a master class in suspense and white-knuckle terror, and it reaches its climax over the Fourth of July weekend, when Amity Island’s craven mayor, played by an indelibly amoral Murray Hamilton, argues against shutting down the beaches despite overwhelming evidence that tourists will be turned into bloody chum.
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National Treasure (2004)
Is it preposterous? Sure. But this historical caper with Nicolas Cage is also a perfect popcorn movie in its own escapist way. Cage plays a modern-day Indiana Jones-style treasure hunter, armed with loony conspiracy theories instead of a bullwhip and fedora. His mission: To find America’s most sacred historical artifacts, including the Declaration of Independence, which it turns out, contains clues about more than just life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
The great James Cagney stars as composer/playwright George M. Cohan in this lighthearted, Horatio Alger-like musical about a Broadway star who travels to the White House to be honored by the president. Along the way, he reflects on his life, which is brought to toe-tapping life with renditions of the jingoistic “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Over There,” as well as “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
Top Gun (1986)
Yes, Top Gun fetishizes America’s Reagan-era military might (not to mention its F-14 hardware) with all of the razzle-dazzle of an MTV video, but if you squint a little harder it’s also a testament to a special kind of American hero — the kind of courageous fighter pilots who live on adrenaline and “the need, the need for speed.” This is the movie that turned Tom Cruise into Hollywood’s biggest star, and it’s easy to see why with his thousand-watt smile, undeniable charisma and rebel without a cause cockiness.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Tom Hanks won his second Oscar in a row playing this lovable 20th-century Candide, who manages to pop up at just about every important moment of his era, becoming a uniquely American sort of hero in the process. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this Best Picture winner offers everything you could possibly want on the Fourth of July — generous helpings of kindness, guilelessness and boomer pop culture callbacks, with a dash of feel-good whimsy.
Before there was Hamilton, there was 1776 — a hit Broadway musical about the struggle to declare America’s independence at the Continental Congress, starring William Daniels as John Adams, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson and Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin. Don’t go in expecting Miranda’s lyrical wizardy; this is a different kind of film entirely. But it’s witty, sharp and well worth your time.
Apollo 13 (1995)
American heroism isn’t always defined by gold medals, blue ribbons and triumphant victories. Sometimes heroism just means using your wits and a slide-rule to get back home in one piece. In Ron Howard’s edge-of-your-seat chronicle of one of NASA’s near-disastrous missions to the moon, Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton play real-life astronauts name Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, who managed to skirt death against all odds. They were American heroes, one and all.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.