The Stories Hollywood Tells About America

How three movies set on the Fourth of July reproduce popular myth, but reveal even more through what they leave unsaid

The Stories Hollywood Tells About America
Richard Dreyfuss plays shark expert Hooper in Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 film, “Jaws.” (Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

Before sending U.S. fighter pilots into battle against alien invaders, President Thomas J. Whitmore gives a speech. After the victory, he says, humankind will no longer be divided by petty differences. Today, he reminds his listeners, is the Fourth of July. “You will once again be fighting for our freedom,” he says. “Not from tyranny, oppression or persecution, but from annihilation. We’re fighting for our right to live. To exist.” He adds that after victory, the Fourth of July will be not just an American holiday but a holiday for humanity. To the accompaniment of soaring music, a rapturous audience salutes and applauds.

The scene is a classic from the 1996 blockbuster “Independence Day” and an iconic example of a genre of Hollywood films plotted around the Fourth of July. John Oliver recently spoofed it with an exhortation to British voters to throw off the tyranny of the Conservative government in their upcoming election, which falls on July 4. These Hollywood movies cumulatively tell a fascinating tale about America — about its myths, its self-delusion and its tendency to avoid dealing with a looming crisis until the moment it is triggered. Almost invariably, the crisis is caused by external factors or actors, but is exacerbated and protracted by the protagonists’ own failure to acknowledge and deal with it. The plot’s resolution occurs when the protagonists finally figure out how to face and end the emergency.

According to its own popular narrative of the Fourth of July, America was born out of a struggle for freedom from autocracy. Its mythology of exceptionalism holds that the country’s founders were uniquely wise, that its constitution is practically holy and its institutions stand alone in their democratic character. Some cling to this narrative as the only story of America — ignoring, for example, the country’s history of chattel slavery and segregation. Many choose the illusion that the legacies of slavery and racism are no longer relevant, or subscribe to the myth that those who decide America’s military and foreign policy aim to export democracy, despite compelling evidence that shows their true goal is to protect American interests, often at significant cost to others.

In Hollywood movies, the Fourth of July marks a moment that requires heroes to confront things if they are to realize the future to which they aspire.

In Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 movie “Jaws,” the tension is not between the shark and the community it terrorizes, but between facing the shark and pretending the crisis is not happening.

The story takes place in a New England beach town, where the body of a young woman washes ashore just before the summer tourist season is supposed to begin. When the medical examiner concludes that a shark attacked and killed the woman, the police chief (Roy Schneider) orders the beaches closed. But the mayor (Murray Hamilton) bullies him into rescinding the order, citing the revenue the town stands to lose.

The next part of the movie is about people refusing to face facts. A little boy is killed, and again the evidence suggests he was mauled by a shark. Local fishers go out on the water to find the shark and kill a rather small-looking one that they bring triumphantly to shore. But when they open its belly there is no trace of the boy’s flesh. Nor does the small shark’s jaw match the bite marks found on the corpse of the young woman who was killed a week earlier. But even after an oceanographer finds a massive shark’s tooth embedded in the hull of a destroyed fishing boat, the mayor refuses to concede that there might be a great white shark — a rare, deadly predator — roaming the waters close to the shore. The New England summer must go on.

The crisis comes on the Fourth of July, when the beaches are packed with people celebrating Independence Day. The great white shark, whose existence the mayor has refused to accept, attacks and kills. Finally, faced with irrefutable evidence of the shark’s existence, the mayor allows three men — the police chief, an oceanographer and a grizzled shark hunter — to go after the predator. The three succeed in killing the shark, but at great cost. Several attempts fail and one of the three men is killed. The final confrontation between man and beast is a gory, albeit creative, death scene.

In a dramatic public confrontation, the mother of the dead boy tells the police chief that, by refusing to take necessary action in a timely manner, he is responsible for the death of her son. While calling out his incompetence does not make the problem disappear, it does provide an opening for those who do know how to resolve the crisis to take the necessary action.

Part of what makes the movie so powerful is how little we see of the shark. Mechanical failures with the fake shark forced Spielberg to be creative: Instead of showing the predator, he provides terrifying hints with effects like a stream of blood in the water or the decimated hull of a boat with a shark’s tooth embedded in the wood. America, as a country, has never thought much of restraint or white space and neither did Spielberg: The shark was meant to be shown. But it turned out that having to substitute creative camera techniques and a now-iconic score made “Jaws” a more powerful movie. As Spielberg later conceded, “The film went from a Japanese matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the-less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller.”

In a kind of mirror of the movie, beauty came not from what those in charge wanted to happen, but from rising to the occasion that was actually unfolding.

It was “the biggest pickle” of their lives.

This line is used three or four times in the 1993 film “The Sandlot.” On the surface, it is wildly different from “Jaws” — it’s a children’s movie, not a horror film — but the baseball romp is also predicated on key plot points of self-delusion in the face of a crisis on the Fourth of July.

Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) moves to a new town in the summer of 1962. He does not know much about baseball but becomes friends with a ragtag group of boys led by Benny Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), who is kind and cool, loves baseball more than anything and takes Smalls under his wing. Rodriguez is so obsessed with baseball that when the boys play a game at night on the Fourth of July, while everyone else wants to stare up at the fireworks, he tells them to focus on the game.

The boys play baseball on the titular sandlot, behind which is a backyard that is home to a dog they have nicknamed “the Beast.” One of the boys explains the legend of the Beast: Its owner is Mr. Mertle (James Earl Jones), whom the boys don’t know but believe to be a cruel man who raised the dog to be a predator. And so balls that are hit over the fence into Mr. Mertle’s backyard must stay there. They now belong to the Beast.

The aforementioned “biggest pickle” comes when Smalls “borrows” from his stepfather a baseball signed by Babe Ruth, the legendary player who was a superstar in the 1920s. Smalls has not heard of Babe Ruth, but he is a hero to the other boys — and to his stepfather. The ball is predictably hit over the fence, at which point Smalls learns the value of the ball and the gravity of his misdeed. The boys, still believing the legend of the Beast, make a series of doomed attempts to retrieve the ball while avoiding the simplest but most undesirable solution of knocking on the front door.

Eventually, after a dream in which Babe Ruth tells Benny to face his fears, the boy goes into the backyard, retrieves the ball and is chased around town by the Beast. The chase takes them through the town’s Founders’ Festival, where everything is decorated in red, white and blue. Then, back in the sandlot, a fence falls on the Beast and Benny and Smalls lift it to save their purported nemesis — which is how they discover he is just a big, affectionate dog who wants to give them a kiss and show off his baseballs.

They return the dog to Mr. Mertle, who turns out to be a nice old man and former star baseball player who went blind after he was hit with a ball. Mr. Mertle asks the boys why they didn’t just knock on his door and ask for the ball back. He also gives Smalls a baseball signed by the 1927 Yankees team, whom he knew, as a present for his stepfather. The boys agree to visit again to talk baseball. The Beast, whose real name is Hercules, becomes a kind of mascot for the boys.

As in “Jaws,” the only way to overcome a frightening reality is to face one’s fears. Also as in “Jaws,” facing reality and conquering one’s fears requires collaboration and cooperation. And again, working together does not magically resolve the issues; there’s still the chase scene and Smalls’ stepfather does indeed ground him for a week as punishment for taking his valuable baseball without permission. The difference here is that reality isn’t fatal. In fact, it isn’t as dark or scary as the myth, something the boys never would have known had Benny not decided to retrieve that ball from Mr. Mertle’s backyard. The “biggest pickle” wasn’t that the ball went behind the fence; it was that they believed the story about the Beast rather than just going to meet Hercules and Mr. Mertle.

Rewatching “The Sandlot” as an adult raises questions about what the movie might be avoiding behind the fence. Mr. Mertle is a Black man whose baseball career would have been limited not only by his having gone blind, but also by the racist practices that segregated American professional baseball into two separate and unequal leagues — the Major League and the Negro League — until 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier more than a decade after Babe Ruth retired.

In “The Sandlot,” the myth of mean Mr. Mertle and the Beast is replaced by the myth of an equitable, just American past where everyone who lived and breathed baseball had equal access to the game.

If “Jaws” avoids and then confronts crisis through horror and “The Sandlot” through childhood wonder, then the 1996 blockbuster film “Independence Day” does so through science fiction and action. But the idea is the same. As Bill Pullman, who plays the president, said in a 2020 interview for GQ magazine, “The challenge is to recognize truth.”

In “Jaws,” the mayor denies reality because he is committed to the values of capitalism. In “The Sandlot,” the children are misled by myth. The initial mental block in “Independence Day” is a failure by those in power to imagine that American power could truly be challenged — that an external, nonhuman force would try to do what humans do, which is fight to kill. But though the reasons differ, as in “Jaws” and “The Sandlot,” it takes time for the “Independence Day” protagonists to acknowledge the approaching crisis and take the necessary preventive action.

On July 2, scientists see an unidentified flying object — a flying saucer — approaching Earth. They don’t know what to make of it; neither does the Pentagon. At the White House, the president and his adviser (Margaret Colin) are consumed by a discussion of his waning popularity.

David Levinson, a New York-based MIT-trained technology expert played by Jeff Goldblum, dismisses the scientists who claim there’s a flying saucer approaching Earth. It’s impossible, he says. Levinson’s dismissiveness is, of course, foreshadowing. Soon he will be proved spectacularly wrong.

Meanwhile, at the White House, while the president and his staff debate the nature and gravity of the object approaching Earth from outer space, the large flying saucer emits smaller versions of itself; these mini flying saucers move to cover some of the most populous cities in the world — including urban centers in the United States. Black and glowing blue, they hover over the cities, lingering on symbolic edifices like the White House. Some people panic and try to escape in their cars while others gather in crowds, staring up at the strange objects in the sky. Among the spectators are those who excitedly hold up signs to welcome the alien arrivals.

The prospect of unidentified flying objects from outer space heading toward the world’s largest cities surely seems like a reason to issue an evacuation order. But the president decides he will take no action. Instead, he will stay in the White House to calm the nation and preempt mass panic. But David, the MIT-trained technician, has had an epiphany; he realizes the flying saucers are exploiting satellites on Earth to mount a deadly mass attack. He conveys this message to the president via the president’s adviser, who happens to be his former wife, but the leader of the free world is hamstrung by his failure to take necessary measures, like issuing an evacuation order, when there was still time. Now it’s too late; the people living in major population centers are defenseless against the attacking aliens.

Once again, even when the protagonists do decide to face what is happening, actual resolution is hard-won. The Air Force tries to attack the invading aliens but fails; missiles bounce off the saucers even as they shoot down U.S. warplanes. One pilot, Capt. Steve Hiller (Will Smith), manages to shoot down a flying saucer and capture an alien who, after regaining consciousness during a physical examination, tries to attack the president and says there will be “no peace.” The president decides to “nuke the bastards,” but this tactic fails too. The unsuccessful attempt to nuke its way out of the situation calls to mind America’s refusal to accept the limits of military force and the litany of its failures to achieve national objectives via military means since World War II.

A tender act from David’s father Julius (Judd Hirsch) toward his son saves the day. Get off the cold floor, Julius tells his despairing son. You’ll get sick. The world is about to end, but David’s father doesn’t want his son to catch a cold. His father’s love triggers David’s second epiphany: The aliens, he realizes, can be defeated by infecting their flying saucers with a deadly computer virus.

What’s particularly interesting about this sequence is that the idea of love conquering hate and bringing redemption could be understood as a very Christian one, seen in novels for children by C.S. Lewis (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”) and Madeleine L’Engle (“A Wrinkle in Time”). Yet David and Julius Levine from New York are unmistakably Jewish characters, played by well-known Jewish actors, who even discuss their own complicated relationship with Judaism and religious faith in the film. Hollywood has historically had a complicated, ambivalent attitude toward Jews and Jewishness. The founding studio moguls were Jews who had immigrated from Eastern Europe and some of the best-known film stars of the golden age in Hollywood movies were Jews, although many changed their obviously Jewish names to something more “American” — e.g., Lauren Bacall was born Betty Jean Perske; Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danielovitch and Al Jolson’s birth name was Asa Yoelson — but, in a reflection of popular antisemitic attitudes, portrayals of Jewishness were largely taboo in Hollywood films well into the late 20th century. In Hollywood, as in this movie, as in American history, Jews are navigating distinctiveness (David gives his father a kippah in one scene) versus acculturation (an arguably Christian narrative of love saving the day). Today, too — as Jews argue about the extent to which anti-Zionism is antisemitism, and how much of a threat antisemitism is, and whether it is from the left or the right, and who to protest, and as Republican politicians defend Israel in one speech and spread conspiracy theories about Jews in another — we see Jewish debates over their place in America, and America’s ambivalence toward its Jews.

Hiller, the Black fighter pilot, flies the warplane (actually, a recovered alien saucer); David Levine rides shotgun with his computer. A signal is dispatched to armies around the world: The Americans are going to organize a counteroffensive. A vaguely patriotic tune plays in the background. “About bloody time,” a Brit says. America has come to the rescue, just as it did when Britain was fighting alone against Nazi Germany a little over half a century earlier. Hiller, Levine and the other protagonists stand back and celebrate the Fourth of July by admiring the sight of the downed flying saucer, engulfed in flame, the aliens inside destroyed.

American filmmakers are not the only ones to make movies that, consciously or subconsciously, work out ideas about their country. In her book “New Israeli Horror: Local Cinema, Global Genre,” Olga Gershenson describes the wave of Israeli horror movies that were released after 2010 (the year that “Rabies,” the first Israeli film explicitly marketed as horror, premiered). These movies, Gershenson writes, show that the real threat always seems to come from within. In his “Three Colors” trilogy (“Blue,” “White,” “Red”) released between 1993 and 1994, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski explores the elements of France’s national motto — liberty, equality and fraternity — and considers the ways in which people do and don’t pursue and live up to them. Last year, GQ magazine’s India edition published a list of Bollywood films to watch on India’s Independence Day, with stories about the British Raj and heroic Indian soldiers facing militants from Pakistan dominating the selection.

Still, and at the risk of inadvertently submitting to the pull of American exceptionalism, there does seem to be something very American about making movies to self-mythologize and making Independence Day such an important plot point. Americans repeatedly tell their own story for popular entertainment.

Even in their mythmaking and American exceptionalism, though, the movies do manage to tell us something about American culture. It is true that we tell ourselves stories to avoid dealing with crises or to rewrite history in a more favorable light. Sometimes those crises are worse than we might have feared and sometimes they turn out better than we might have hoped, but we can never know until we decide to confront and deal with them. Fourth of July patriotism, American power and all that implies, in these movies as in life, can’t erase what’s threatening us; perhaps this is particularly true when the threat comes from within.

But in each of these movies, the characters do ultimately decide to face their fear, to tackle the looming crisis, to not wave it away with flags and fireworks and myths about how things came to be. Perhaps this is the most fictional thing about them — more unbelievable than the legend of Mr. Mertle, the blind Black former baseball player, or aliens attacking Earth.

Watching these movies raises the question of how different life would be if Americans — particularly those in power who would rather not confront our looming crises — recognized the truth about our history and the political present so that we could try to change it. How different our society would be if we were to address inequality and work toward excising white, Christian nationalism from our politics, if we were to restore and expand American democracy and fight back against those trying to undermine our elections, if we were to grapple with America’s role in the world and the harm we have done to people and the planet itself, if we were to ensure that we were celebrating freedom for everyone equally.

These are difficult tasks. But to solve a crisis we must first stop deluding ourselves. Then we can at least face it, even if the task is overwhelming. To borrow from “Jaws”: We’re going to need a bigger boat.

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