6 Films That Show the Best and Worst of America

There are great movies that show America at its best (“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Singin’ in the Rain”) and great movies that show America at its worst (“Citizen Kane,” “GoodFellas”). Here are some great movies that show both.

12 Angry Men


Every person serving jury duty today should be required to watch this masterpiece from 1957. It represents the triumph of objective, thoughtful citizens over the forces of bigotry and disinterest in society. Yet just as clearly, it also shows how powerful those negative forces are in the American judicial system.

The Right Stuff


With its stirring music, imagery and subject matter, you might think Philip Kaufman’s film adaptation of the Tom Wolfe book about the first years of the space program is altogether positive. But it’s not. It carefully weaves in elements of mass media idiocy, political idiocy and individual idiocy that are just as much a part of the American fabric as heroism and ingenuity.

American History X


Edward Norton is riveting in a central performance as a young man who becomes a white supremacist and later tries to change his ways. Always intelligent and unsparing, this movie somehow also gives off a vibe that harkens back to the dramas of the 1950s. Shout-out to the very talented Avery Brooks, in this scene with Norton.

All the President’s Men


Despite all the political scandals since Watergate, all the failings of the press that have come to light, and even the fact that we now know the identity of Deep Throat, this movie still amazes. In America, a couple of scribes knocking on doors and making phone calls can take on a corrupt government and bring its misdeeds into the light of public scrutiny.

Moscow on the Hudson


Paul Mazursky’s comedy about a Russian defector who comes to New York, starring Robin Williams, is underrated. It’s an upbeat comedy, to be sure, but it also offers commentary on American consumer culture, the brutal nature of capitalism and the difficulty many immigrants encounter.

The Grapes of Wrath


You can’t watch this film, based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel of Depression-era America, and not feel sick over how often the working poor in this country take it on the chin. It’s a punishing, intractable poverty that by rights should break the American spirit. But it doesn’t – not then and not now. I’ll leave you with Henry Fonda’s “I’ll be there” speech and wish you a happy and healthy July 4 weekend.