Does the Fourth of July holiday put you in the mood for a patriotic film? Or perhaps it gives you the urge to see more of America the beautiful? Last week I asked readers to recommend their favorite films about American history. You might want to jot down a few ideas for video rentals on the holiday weekend.

The question posed a problem for some who responded. In his e-mail, Alan Wilcox summed up the dilemma. He asks, "What are historical movies? It is nearly impossible to do good history in print, never mind such a subjective medium as film. Is a movie historical if it takes place in the past? If it conveys historical ideas? Example: Platoon is not based on actual historical events, but it certainly deals with the historical themes relating to Vietnam. But if Platoon is historical, then why not Forrest Gump? Zorro? The Crucible? The Godfather?"

Among the "historical" films about America that have impressed him: The Best Years of our Lives, Bonnie and Clyde, All the President's Men, and a troubling drama about racism in the South, Mississippi Burning.

Peter T. Chattaway, film critic for Canadian Christianity and The Vancouver Courier, suggests "Thirteen Days—partly because it's recent and partly because the DVD includes commentary by the historians on whose work the film was based. (I love it when they point out places where the film deviates from the historical record!)"

Chattaway adds, "There is more to history than wars and politicians. Perhaps a true-story baseball movie like Eight Men Out might qualify as a 'historical' film? Or is that merely what we often call a 'period piece'? [Rich Kennedy thinks it qualifies: "John Sayles' Eight Men Out is not only a great baseball pic, but an excellent and mostly accurate account of the Black Sox Scandal."] And what about fiction? Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, and Titanic all depict actual events—the burning of Atlanta, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the sinking of the world's largest vessel—but in the context of clearly fictitious stories. For that matter, to return to the Cuban Missile Crisis (sort of), could Dr. Strangelove be considered a historical film, because it opens our eyes to certain aspects of the era in which it was made? Can we even call it a 'historical' film, since it was set in what was then the present day, and not further back in the past?"

As movie buff Danny Walter thought through his favorites, he realized: "It's hard to think of any good films about things that happened before the Civil War." (Mel Gibson's The Patriot stands as a notable exception—rather formulaic, but a beautifully filmed epic all the same.) Walter recommends films about recent military conflicts: Oliver Stone's Platoon, Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, Frances Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Two Civil War movies made his list: Glory and the television miniseries Gettysburg. Also memorable: Fat Man and Little Boy, "about America's race to build the atom bomb."

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Some of Walter's suggestions are about moments of America's more regrettable periods. Such stories can serve to remind of the fragility of our freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it. The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller's play explores religious fanaticism during the days of the Salem witch trials. The Doors reveals some of the cultural scandals that spurred many disillusioned '60s youth into self-destructive lifestyles. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid humanizes the legendary bandits of the Old West. Space travel buffs might get teary-eyed watching brave Americans in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. And then there are his favorite films about influential Americans in the '60s, triumphant and tragic: Malcolm X and JFK.

Dan Buck, film critic for Relevant Magazine and The Film Forum, is "incredibly fond of Eyes on the Prize, a documentary series about the civil rights battle. Inspirational, deftly told, and using an enormous number of primary sources, it's something that should be mandatory viewing for all college students. It changed my life and inspired me to write a short play."

Dane Skelton recommends Tora! Tora! Tora! "for accuracy about Pearl Harbor in a format that is interesting. It doesn't have a hopeless romance included for the Hollywood crowd." Also: "They Were Expendable—for portrayal of PT Boat command … that is accurate and enjoyable to watch."

There were many others. Merlyn Krauss mentions Sergeant York, a film about a true-life hero, and The Grapes of Wrath: "Fiction, but it represents a not so well-known part of history: the Great Depression." He also values The Godfather 1 and 2 for "glimpses of immigrant America." Also: 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, The Deer Hunter, Pride of the Yankees, 61, Run Silent Run Deep, The Enemy Below, Amistad, and the landmark mini-series Roots.

Brad Stansberry says Saving Private Ryan is "a wonderful movie. I don't think it's possible to watch it and not feel proud to be an American and feel a debt to those who have died for this country." He also recommends the recent Black Hawk Down for the same reasons, along with the lesser known Gardens of Stone and In Country.

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Many other titles come to mind that powerfully illustrate the deep-rooted problems that divide Americans into opposing camps: Do the Right Thing and Grand Canyon, to name a couple. Christian Hamaker, media writer/editor at, says, "Among its many strengths, Magnolia is a brilliant reflection on American life. Sexual abuse, drugs, loneliness, generational conflict, God, vanity—it's all in there. It's contemporary and relevant in ways that historical epics aren't or can't be. And lest the uninitiated think Magnolia is all bad news, it turns out that mercy is central to the film's main message."

You might also want to consider those who lived on this land before it was called "America." In Books & Culture, Crystal Downing presents an overview of films that focus on Native Americans. "The assumption seems to be that current filmmakers, and hence the audiences they seek to please—you and I, for example—are morally superior to their benighted predecessors. Taking our cue from C. S. Lewis, who called such hubris 'chronological snobbery,' we should be suspicious of the idea that no one before the 1960s questioned the portrayal of Indians as one-dimensional signs, whether of savagery or of childlike innocence. Indeed, as early as 1911 an essay appeared protesting the depiction of Indians in film, followed by a 1912 movie sympathetically portraying Indians." Downing goes on to explore how one Native American artist, Sherman Alexie, is offering a different perspective, bringing stories like Smoke Signals to the screen.

And last but not least, there is the God-given beauty of America as seen from the road. If you don't have the time for a drive across the country this weekend, I'd recommend you rent David Lynch's The Straight Story. Even though Lynch is known for dark, sordid tales, this film is an utter delight, a journey through the heartland at the pace of a riding lawn mower. It celebrates the natural beauty of this country as much as it pays tribute to people who behave as good neighbors, helping each other realize their dreams against all odds.

Hot from the Oven

In Mr. Deeds, Adam Sandler plays Longfellow Deeds, a nice guy from small-town New Hampshire who inherits $40 billion. Eventually his small-town, old-fashioned virtues teach the silver-spoon set a thing or two. Along the way, he wins the adoration of a beautiful reporter named Babe Bennett (Winona Ryder), and is waited upon by a dignified valet (John Turturro).

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It's not just the formula—the simpleton trying to cope with great wealth—that's familiar. The movie is a remake of Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. At least it is supposed to be a remake. Critics are finding very little in common between the original and this new version. Many argue that sarcastic Sandler has been sorely miscast.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic writes, "It might have been better if Mr. Deeds hadn't come to town. Sandler's uninventive remake … can't decide if it wants to be a sappy romance, an indictment of a moneyed culture or a slapstick comedy."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) calls it an "occasionally sweet-spirited, yet often profane adaptation. It's as if the first 20 minutes were too much decency for the filmmakers to take, so they backloaded the picture with as much crass, MTV-style humor as possible to compensate for the wholesome set-up."

Michael Elliott (Christian Critic) says, "Simple is the best descriptive for this disappointing piece of fluff. More accurately, it is simple-minded. Apparently nothing stands in the way of reaching for a laugh, no matter how far one must stretch. Adam Sandler has built his career playing goofy guys with a heavy sarcastic and sardonic sense of humor. As Longfellow Deeds, Sandler … is muzzled and his performance becomes bland."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) says, "[It] brings a clear moral about the dangers of wealth and greed. It shows that guys really do want a sweet 'girl next door,' and that they value real relationships." She sees a problem in Deeds' character development … or lack of such. "One of the first rules of screenwriting is that the protagonist must have a character arc. Mr. Deeds stays the same throughout the film. His eyes are opened a bit to the shallowness and greed of the wealthy elite, but his own character undergoes no change."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "How do I compare this remake with the original, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Frank Capra? Hamburger vs. steak."

Paul Bicking (Preview) affirms that "Mr. Deeds is not without problems." But he lists different problems: vulgar language and violence. And because Deeds tends to punch people who have bad manners, Bicking also reminds us, "Violence is not the best way to influence behavior."

One critic stood up for the film. Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says she "laughed all the way through this movie," but she adds that "Happy Gilmore remains Sandler's funniest movie."

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Mainstream critics seemed glad that Capra and Cooper are not around to see their movie so mistreated. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) found one scene particularly ironic. "At one point during the long ordeal … it is said of the Adam Sandler character, 'He doesn't share our sense of ironic detachment.' Is this a private joke by the writer? If there's is one thing Sandler's Mr. Deeds has, it's ironic detachment."

Andrew O'Hehir ( says, "There is something fundamentally bogus … about this movie's painfully earnest presentation of its plain-spoken, heartland-America values. It's fake sincerity, or maybe sincere fakery."

Kids' Menu

Hey Arnold! Go back to television! That's the message being sent by critics who viewed the new family movie based on the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series. Arnold is a boy who loves his neighborhood, and who may be the only one clever enough to devise a plan that will foil the intentions of evil developers with their bulldozers. Even critics who admire the television show are dismayed at what they see here.

James Akin (Decent Films) says the television cartoon is "entertaining in a low-key, kid-friendly mode, yet also far more psychologically complex than most cartoons. I went to the screening with anticipation." He was disappointed. "Given the number of missteps the filmmakers made, it looks as if the filmmakers simply had no idea whatsoever how to adapt the Hey, Arnold! series for the big screen. There are missteps at every turn."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) acknowledges "some smart writing and that magical something that appeals to little ones, but the producers haven't captured this kid at heart." He is troubled by what he calls "an edgy quality" in the humor, and finds "the story, drawings and character voices blah and uninspiring."

The USCCB's critic says, "The humdrum comedy lacks the inventiveness to make it anything more than a 74-minute version of a TV episode. Younger viewers are likely to be more amused by the film than their adult chaperones, chiefly because it shows kids single-handedly taking on the bad guy, while the adults mainly do nothing."

"Are your kids already hooked on the TV show?" asks Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family.) "Hey Arnold! The Movie doesn't go anywhere the series hasn't already gone. Never heard of Arnold? I don't see any compelling reason to change that." Isaac highlights honorable themes—"teamwork, friendship, perseverance and courage." But he also cautions parents that the movie also portrays "violent confrontations, explosions, a flippant view of idol worship, deception and taking far too many risks—especially for a 10-year-old."

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But Tom Snyder (Movieguide) raves, "Hey Arnold! is a very humorous, entertaining movie with a lot of heart. It's the setting and the characters that give the movie its charm." He praises the film because, in one humorous moment, a child prays a quick prayer. And he adds that he is pleased to hear one character use the phrase "Godspeed."

Tomorrow's Menu

Judging from the warm reception that audiences gave its previews, Men in Black 2 (or, in its abbreviated form, MIIB) is one of the most eagerly awaited films of the summer. Will Smith appears poised to conquer the box office on Independence Day once again.

Unfortunately, critics who have seen the film claim there is not much about this sequel to make it any more memorable than the first. In fact, some say it is quite inferior to the witty, clever original.

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) says, "Summer moviegoers will probably be satisfied with this popcorn muncher, but I was a bit let down. Although the special effects are amazing and the action keeps you glued to your seat, the storyline was a bit linear and the comedy often forced or in need of a rewrite."

"Yes, Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith are back in Black," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "but their odd-couple chemistry has succumbed to tired bickering, while the satiric wit and creative energy of the original film have given way to standard-issue sci-fi action and special-effects spectacle. You'll wait in vain for satirical 'revelations' about the presence of aliens among us to match the wit of the jokes in the original about cab drivers or the World's Fair." He adds, "I liked the fact that MIB ended with Kay finally getting to go back to the woman he loved, and I resent the filmmakers breaking up their marriage for the sake of this inferior sequel."

Mainstream critics are similarly unimpressed.

"Nothing particularly memorable happens in the sci-fi action here," says Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter), whose generally favorable review lacks any enthusiasm. "Abbott and Costello movies had more sophisticated plots. But the sight of the two actors wading into a sea of icky creatures and bumbling aliens is irresistibly funny. Sonnenfeld keeps things brisk. The movie clocks in at a trim 88 minutes, and things move more swiftly than in a cartoon. Technical effects are top-notch, which doesn't mean the creatures don't look fake … That's part of the joke."

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But David Denby (The New Yorker) was not at all amused. "MIIB is mostly dull physical comedy and special effects that are no longer fresh. One scene follows another with little variation; the movie is actually boring—one fights to stay awake."

Next week: More reviews of Men in Black 2 and the new film from John Sayles—Sunshine State.