Clocking in at 72 verses, Psalm 78 is one of the longest in the Jewish and Christian Psalters. At great length, it recalls the story of the Hebrew nation, focusing especially on the special, covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and God. Psalm 78 doesn’t merely recount a list of facts — it displays Israel’s past for a purpose: to say who they are and who they should strive to be.
Americans show a consistent hunger for reflecting on our own grand story. We find it in the continued success of books on our Founders. We also see it in a recent Echelon Insights poll which found that Americans — by wide margins — want to see more historical and patriotic films.
Our country craves these stories for the same reason the ancient Israelites desired to put their historical narrative to song. Stories matter greatly for both the present and the future of any political community. By them, we engage in continual acts of self-definition. They help form us as a coherent community of citizens. At their best, films can restate these essential stories, renew communal bonds, and positively reform the principles and practices of viewers. Yet we know that many films fall far short of these goals. Birth of a Nation (1915) ends by celebrating the Ku Klux Klan’s “redemption” of the post-Reconstruction South. Reds (1981) worships at the altar of Marx and communism and pines for its adoption in the United States.
First, future American films should restate America’s story. We should come out of the theater knowing that story better. Survey after survey reveals an alarming number of Americans don’t know their own history. What they don’t pick up in the classroom they can, for good or ill, obtain in the cinema.
Consider how many Americans know the second half of the 20th century through Forrest Gump (1994). And whose view of the settling of the frontier wasn’t at least partially formed by the genre of the American Western? Good historical films should illuminate critical truths about Americans’ past lives and events, assisting in the essential civic education of American citizens.
Second, these films should renew — not only telling us about ourselves but showing us how to be better Americans. Sergeant York (1941) illustrates how Christianity and the defense of one’s country can coexist. A fictional story like the Western Shane (1953) showcases families and homesteads as the foundation of America’s political community. Both reveal the virtues of Americans forged by their country and serving the public good from which they have benefited. They also reveal vices we must avoid lest we face the undermining of our character and thereby our safety, morality, and prosperity.
Third, films should reveal the value of restoration. Americans have lived under the ideals of equality, justice, and liberty since before our founding. We have constantly striven to realize them — imperfectly, and thus, perpetually. Therefore, films that highlight restoration build off of renewal. The best on-screen treatments of slavery and race accomplish this goal. We learn from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) how to stand up for human equality regardless of a person’s skin color. We see the bravery in the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment — one of the earliest all-black regiments in the Civil War — through Glory (1989). These films show America’s noble striving. Doing so does not ignore our ills. But it does not treat America as a country inherently wicked and doomed by its past.
Films don’t matter so much because they comprise the only means of restatement, renewal, and restoration. Speeches such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and written statements like the Declaration of Independence also serve this purpose. We should continue to value these precious documents. But good stories in film accomplish the same goal in a particularly powerful way. People tire of others preaching at them. Thus, they tend to reject movies that berate them with the principles a filmmaker says they should think. This underscores why films like Crash (2004) had so little staying power. To be sure, hokey patriotism bereft of the real challenges of America’s past, present, and future won’t make the cut either.
Instead, effective films tell a story instead of dictating the audience’s thoughts. In so doing, they do not ignore principles of justice, equality, and human liberty. At their best, they do not reject the documents of Lincoln, King, and Jefferson. They make their principles live. We see what justice looks like in practice. We see the fight for equality and the cost of liberty as displayed in human, especially American, experiences. Whether giving us accounts of Americans ordinary or extraordinary, real or fictional, films can tell us who we are with nuance and with heart. The current success of Top Gun: Maverick shows this point. It does not preach tropes of social commentary. The film’s exhilarating action displays the skill, dedication, and bravery of America’s top pilots.
In fact, we often come to see our principles, and the documents expressing them, through the lens of the American story. We understand the Gettysburg Address through a movie like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). We consider King’s “I Have a Dream” through Selma (2014). We view the Declaration of Independence through the life story told in HBO’s acclaimed John Adams miniseries (2008).
Americans demand more of their films, and there’s a particular joy in knowing one’s self and one’s country better by watching the stories of the local and national polity unfold on the silver screen. They want this tale told properly, not avoiding the wrong but justly celebrating the good. Hollywood should take note. It would mean higher receipts at the domestic box office. But more importantly, it would mean the betterment of the country.
Adam M. Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College.
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