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Cinema Nation

Movies explore America in all its complexity

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There's a scene in the 1960 version of The Alamo in which John Wayne, playing frontiersman Davy Crockett, delivers an inspirational speech, more to the moviegoing public than to anyone on screen. "Republic," he drawls. "I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober - however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat." By the time Wayne is through with his soliloquy, we're proud to be Americans ourselves.

On the other hand, there's a sequence in 1969's Easy Rider in which Jack Nicholson, as liberal lawyer George Hansen, explains to hippie Dennis Hopper why the latter's very presence rankles the country yokels who repeatedly cross his path. "What you represent to them is freedom... That's what it's all about. But talking about it and being it; that's two different things. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free cuz then they're gonna get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are. Oh yeah, they're gonna talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom, but they see a free individual, it's gonna scare them." By the end of the film, Nicholson, Hopper and fellow biker Peter Fonda are all dead, killed by the same sort of mental midgets who even today practice bigotry and intolerance while wrapping themselves in a blood-soaked American flag.

Welcome to the two sides of the same coin: The United States of America, a magnificent land that repeatedly manages to squander its greatness. How can a nation that placed a man on the moon also have placed an entire race in shackles? How can a country that prides itself on its citizenry's right to freedom of speech find so many ways to silence dissenting voices?

This duality hasn't been lost to those in the film capital. Ever since its inception, cinema has frequently had its finger on the country's pulse, creating works that alternately praise and condemn this great land of ours. Here, then, are glimpses at the nation's Jekyll and Hyde persona, broken up into quintessentially American topics that reflect the USA in all its complex facets.

Sports America loves its sports, and why not? There's the indomitable spirit of rugged individuals who don't know the meaning of the word "quit." There are the religious connotations of a practice based on faith, historical relevance and, yes, even the occasional miracle. There are the underdogs and the outcasts, the beaming good guys and the surly bad boys, the comeback kids and the perennial champions. In short, sports can be a metaphor for life itself, and nowhere is that more evident than in the superb Bull Durham (1988), in which the world of minor-league baseball serves as a launching pad for a witty, insightful movie that tackles love, sex, philosophy and other major-league musings.

Our love of sports is so pure that it's like a blow to the system when there's even a whiff of corruption surrounding any sporting event. Boxing films like The Set-Up (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956) particularly focus on the illegal activities taking place behind the scenes, but for a real wallop upside the head, there's Eight Men Out (1988), John Sayles' meticulous recreation of the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal that rocked the nation. In Sayles' view, the fat-cat owners are equally at fault as the actual Chicago White Sox players who allegedly threw the World Series, though there's enough shame to go around. John Cusack, David Strathairn and, as Shoeless Joe Jackson ("Say it ain't so, Joe"), D.B. Sweeney head the fine ensemble of a film about Americans who momentarily forget that not even the smell of money can compete with the taste of victory.

Class Struggle¨ In Preston Sturges' comedy classic Sullivan's Travels (1941), Hollywood director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides he's tired of making comedic fluff and wants to make an important movie about the poor. "The subject is not an interesting one," counters his butler (Robert Greig). "The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous." But Sullivan won't be deterred, and to experience the hard life firsthand, he disguises himself as a hobo and sets off on his divine mission. It's a learning experience, all right: The nation's downtrodden teach him a valuable lesson about the need for his brand of fluff in their lives — after all, is there anything that unites people more than the simple pleasure of a good, long laugh?

Director John Ford's adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1940) pulls no punches in relating the saga of the Joad family, poor Okie farmers who head to California hoping to find work after their own land is decimated by drought and taken away by heartless banks and corporations. In this film, there's no common ground, no sense of solidarity and certainly no shared laughter between the haves and the have-nots; as Henry Fonda's soul-stirring "I'll be there" speech suggests, the only hope is for the little guys to watch each other's backs when those in charge come calling.

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