The Best Movies to Watch on the 4th of July
Since fireworks festivities can’t get underway until that blasted sun goes down, you may be planning on watching a movie or two during the 4th of July—in between hot dog grillings and swimming pool visits, of course. But with such limited time available on this national holiday, which movie do you choose? What’s the perfect movie to watch on the 4th of July? Well, not to worry, we here at Collider have you covered. We’ve assembled a pretty swell (and diverse) list of films that would make for fine Independence Day viewing. Whether you’re in the mood for something light, something patriotic, or a more sober encapsulation of our nation’s history, you’re sure to find something to here.
Behold, the best movies to watch on the 4th of July.
Jaws is pretty much the perfect summer movie. I mean, it started the summer movie season for pete’s sake, but sunshine and leisure activities abound in Steven Spielberg’s thriller classic—in between terrifying shark attacks, that is. Jaws perfectly captures the feeling of summer vacation time at the beach, with a strong tie to Independence Day as Mayor Vaughn won’t let Chief Brody forget that the 4th of July is a very important business time for Amity, shark attacks be damned. So if you’re in the mood for something along the lines of pure entertainment with a sweet summer-y bent, you can’t go wrong with Jaws.
The 4th of July not only marks our nation’s Independence Day, but it also serves as something of a halfway marker for summer vacation. Kids aren’t likely to neglect the fact that this means school is starting again soon, but the 1993 coming-of-age film The Sandlot does a tremendous job of capturing that feeling of being a kid on summer vacation, when whatever was happening right then and there was the most important thing in the world, and you were sure that you were with the folks who would be your best friends for life. The Sandlot chronicles that freewheeling feeling without being pedantic or cliché, from playing chicken with the scary dog in the neighborhood to crushing on the lifeguard at the local pool (I’ll love you forever, Wendy Peffercorn). And what solidifies it as a solid 4th of July movie is the terrific Independence Day sequence with fireworks galore. Ah, nostalgia.
Obviously. It’s not 4th of July weekend without Roland Emmerich’s 1996 disaster epic, and while the sequel was apparently of little interest to general audiences 20 years later, Independence Day still holds up as a goofy, fun 90s throwback with a hefty dose of American patriotism. Will Smith is the shining star of this one, with a swagger that works as a terrific foil to Jeff Goldblum’s brainy David Levinson, and the story doesn’t get too obsessed with all the sci-fi and keeps a solid focus on the humans directly affected by the alien invasion. But what solidifies this as a great 4th of July watch is, of course, Bill Pullman’s rousing speech. Shine on, President Whitmore.
If you’re in the mood for something really patriotic but also loads of fun, look no further than Peter H. Hunt’s 1972 musical 1776. Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, the film recounts the events surrounding the signing of the Declaration of Independence, complete with musical breaks involving a singing Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It’s a wonderfully amusing film with some seriously catchy tunes, and it holds up quite well. Think of it as a really white version of Hamilton with Boy Meets World’s Mr. Feeny playing John Adams.
Born on the Fourth of July
America’s history as a nation is not all sunshine and rainbows that’s for sure, so if you want to celebrate this country’s great history while also acknowledging some of its serious missteps, Oliver Stone’s epic Vietnam War character piece Born on the Fourth of July is your film. Tom Cruise turns in one the best performances of his career as he chronicles the life of Ron Kovic from young patriot eager to serve his country to disgruntled veteran mistreated by the very nation to which he sacrificed the ability to walk. Stone is, undoubtedly, a controversial filmmaker, but Born on the Fourth of July is surprisingly straightforward, and as a Vietnam veteran himself, Stone brings a degree of expertise to the table. It’s not necessarily an easy watch, but it is in some ways a necessary one. As great as the United States of America can be, it’s also important to acknowledge our failures, lest we’re destined to repeat them.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have Frank Capra’s idealistic, uplifting Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The story of a Junior Senator trying to do something in the world of American politics speaks to the “voice of the people” aspect of America, and only Jimmy Stewart could play Jeff Smith with such verve, passion, and optimism. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is about the goodness that can come about from good people trying to do good things (see also: The West Wing), although upon its release in 1939 it was attacked as anti-American for its depiction of corruption in American politics (“well, I never!”). It has since become a tried and true classic, and for a reminder of the good side of American politics on our nation’s birthday, makes for a fine watch.
I wouldn’t exactly have pegged Roland Emmerich as the de facto 4th of July filmmaker, but here he is with two films on this list that make for swell Independence Day watches. The second is his 2000 Revolutionary War epic The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson as a veteran of the French and Indian War who comes face to face with the British army and subsequently turns to bloody revenge after his family falls victim to the enemy. The Patriot is, by most accounts, wildly inaccurate when it comes to the actual history of the American Revolution, but it is incredibly entertaining and features a swell supporting performance by Heath Ledger and some top-notch world building. So if you like your 4th of July historical epics with minimal accuracy but maximum firepower, The Patriot is your movie.
The most recent film on this list, Lincoln is also about the American political process, albeit with a bit more nuance. Steven Spielberg worked for over a decade to bring one of our nation’s greatest presidents to the big screen, and while Lincoln was met with solid reviews, it feels like one of those films that’s going to be reconsidered as one of Spielberg’s masterpieces in due time. It avoids hagiography, not shying away from the many contradictions in Lincoln’s life and the difficulty (and care) with which he approached the issue of slavery. But it’s also a wildly compelling procedural about the American political process as it actually works, not as we’d like to think it works. Yes, there’s a fair amount of wheeling and dealing involved, but sometimes the ends justify the means, and watching Lincoln work tirelessly to bring slavery to an end and solidify his legacy, through a phenomenally possessed performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, is at once sobering and awe-inspiring. So if you’re planning an indoors-day for the 4th of July, give Lincoln another watch as a reminder of the great things that can happen in American politics when passion meets compromise and diligence.
If you’re really in for an indoors day on the 4th of July, why not go all-in with the HBO miniseries John Adams? Technically this isn’t a movie, but I think it qualifies. The King’s Speech and Les Miserables director Tom Hooper helms all seven parts of this all-encompassing chronicle of the life of John Adams, beginning with the Boston Massacre in 1770 and concluding with Adams’ death in 1826. Paul Giamatti is perfectly suited to play our nation’s second President, and one who struggled to get out of George Washington’s shadow. Adams was a fascinating character, one with plenty of peculiarities but a love for America nonetheless, and the miniseries wonderfully hones in on his relationship with wife Abigail (Laura Linney)—which was more of a partnership when it came to his political career—and his contentious relationship with Thomas Jefferson, plays by Stephen Dillane. Obsessed with Hamilton? Give John Adams another spin and begin the letter-writing campaign to HBO to continue on with miniseries installments for the rest of the founding fathers.
The final entry on this list is not a traditional 4th of July movie, but it captures the spirit of America nonetheless. Tony Scott’s terrific Top Gun is, of course, the story of U.S. Navy fighter pilots, but it’s not too concerned with the politics of aerial warfare or even military service. Top Gun, at heart, is about the intensity and complexity of male friendship, with Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards giving us one of the best “bromances” in Hollywood history. There’s also, of course, Val Kilmer’s antagonizing (and flirtatious) Iceman, and the passion with which Scott chronicles all of these relationships is impressive. It’s also the fist-pumpiest movie in the history of fist-pump-y movies, and if Top Gun doesn’t leave you feeling triumphant, you may lack the human spirit. Kick the tires and light the fires, this is our Independence Day.