As we approach this holiest of America’s fireworks-oriented days off from work, I’d like to talk a bit about how much I love my country.
My parents used to take me to the 4th of July parade in our New Jersey town. I thought I loved my country then.
At the fireworks later that night, everyone would talk about the “grand finale” — when was the “grand finale?” I thought I loved my country then.
But when I was 15 years old, again on the 4th of July, I truly learned to love my country.
Because on that day, at the Warner Quad in Ridgewood, NJ, in the company of a friend with the patriotic and appropriate last name of Hancock, I first saw Independence Day.
Here are the top 10 things I learned that day that I would never forget.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, either because you are too young, you are reading us from overseas (Hola! Shalom! Howya Doin’?) — SPOILERS!
The movie in brief
Invincible aliens unleash giant laser beams that obliterate the planet’s major cities. A complacent and divided humanity does nothing. The aliens move on to other, successively less major cities and destroy those, too. The global population panics, then dwindles.
A cast of unlikely heroes from every walk of American life converges, first on Washington, then on Area 51, a secret American research facility in the Nevada desert. From there, on the 4th of July, helped by a little luck, a lot of dodgy computer science, and one very special alcoholic PTSD sufferer (played with stirring realism by actual alcoholic PTSD sufferer Randy Quaid*), we strike back, slaying our foes, winning the day and saving the world.
If you have not seen this movie, give it a shot. It is probably the best movie out there about the American mind — because it operates on the level of the average American mind, and because it has a lot of heart and charm. It’s a laser-totin’ love letter to the greatness in the American spirit.
And it just might change your life, as it did when it taught me the 10 Best Things About America I Learned from Independence Day.
10. “You’ll get your chance. You’ll all get your chance.”
The heroes of Independence Day are diverse — they hail from as disparate places as West Philadelphia, PA and Bel-Air, CA. But more importantly, each hero gets his or her shot in the spotlight — building the texture of the movie and humanity’s ultimate victory. For an ensemble cast, there’s a lot of focus on individuals, a lot of small scenes and a lot of solitary scenes.
They’re scenes for an American way of life — doing our part away from the group; away from the cushion of culture and community. The broader American way of life encourages individualism and independence in common cause — a trust that our combined efforts, though largely uncoordinated, will bring about great things, like synchronized assaults on genocidal extraterrestrials.
* Or maybe Randy Quaid is just a really good actor. After all, this is America. Anything’s possible.
9. It isn’t pretty, but it works.
It’s muddled, it’s schlocky, it’s unoriginal. Most of it is just ported over from Stargate (directed by the same dude), sometimes shot for shot. And yes, hacking an alien spacefleet with a mid-90s PowerBook is, I’m told, not very “realistic.” But with a lot of hard work and millions of dollars in special effects, it somehow all comes together. Just like us.
There wasn’t anybody in history more American than Thomas Edison, and there isn’t a movie out there that says “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” more than Independence Day.
8. The President is a regular person.
Bill Pullman performed the George W. Bush presidency four years before it started — a former flyboy elected mostly for his looks, simplicity and awkward charm is manhandled by sniveling advisors and forced to watch with a combination of horror and willful ignorance as his country falls victim to an unexpected and perhaps unpreventable attack that he nevertheless did very little to anticipate or stop. He then launches a reckless and unplanned war with inadequate resources and no idea of how to win it.
This is clearly not the work of somebody who rules by Divine Right or the Mandate of Heaven.
George W. Bush told us he was a regular guy, a simple guy, and a man of action. And, lest we forget, we responded to it. A lot of Americans really liked the guy and wanted him to lead our country, especially in crises. In this movie, Bill Pullman’s character is all the the things George W. Bush said he was, at least four years earlier.
And regardless of how all that worked out, Bill Pullman is the kind of leader America generally wants to have: A Cincinnatus who shares our values and sees the call to power as a call to service. Somebody who steps forward when it is his time to lead and steps back to normal life when it is not. Not “His Highness” or even “Your Honor,” just “Mr. President” (or “Ms. President” someday soon). That’s the most enduring legacy of George Washington.
When Bill Pullman refuses to stay behind when others fight, he reaffirms and insists that he is a guy with a job he needs to do just like everyone else.
His regular job just happens to be “fighter pilot.” Must be nice.
7. We bond over our social problems.
America has a lot of problems with race and class. Independence Day doesn’t solve them (shocking, I know). But if the solution were easy, we’d have done it already.
In Independence Day, the characters treat diversity the way I think and hope most Americans do — every once in a while, a little sideways look or a laugh, but overall, a discovery of one another that doesn’t seek too hard to change us, and a sublimation of the stereotypical to the iconic.
That is, the first thing we laugh at about a person becomes the first thing we remember, relate to and care about, and that remembering, relating and caring turns out to be more important than the eventual resolution of our disputes and differences.
Think of president Obama’s acceptance speech on election night 2008. It was a glorious moment, made possible by centuries of oppression. The descendants of the oppressors, many still enjoying the unasked for spoils of wrongful domination and benefitting from the structures emergent from its legacy, were as happy as anyone.
I’m sure if they (we) could fix it, they (we) would. But to live with a hopeful eye toward the future requires that we not be paralyzed by the gravity of our mistakes or the stains on our legacies. In the meantime, those moments of mutual celebration are beautiful things.
6. When we win, everyone wins.
Here is the most generous, quintessentially American line in Independence Day:
Get on the wire to every squadron in the world. Tell them how to bring those sons of bitches down.
By choice or by necessity, when America learns something, other nations learn it, and when America achieves a great victory, other nations share it. Most of the time, Americans are very uncomfortable withholding knowledge or aid from other countries, even when they can’t really afford it.
The exceptions would not be painful if they did not diverge from a norm. But they do.
People from other countries probably don’t see it this way — I’d imagine people from other countries see America’ s victory over the aliens in Independence Day as the glorification of their nation at the expense of others. But to an American, when the Americans defeat the aliens, of course all the other countries in the world also win. It’s the glorification of America in service to others, for the benefit of others. We tire from time to time of watching our neighbors get better than us in things that we invented, sure, but that’s the price you pay for leading the way.
I still wonder how the kids brought that spaceship down with those spears.
5. Our women are nigh-indestructible.
As anyone with experience can tell you (such as our current president or anyone with a mom), American women are formidable. They are some of the bravest, toughest people on Earth.
In Independence Day, the First Lady attempts to escape Washington by helicopter, but is hit by city-destroying laser beam. The White House explodes in an instant, but she nearly shakes it off. She only succumbs to her injuries later in the hospital, once she has said goodbye to her daughter. That’s tough.
A stripper survives a similar fiery blast by ducking into a maintenance closet in a tunnel. She even manages to save her dog. Steven Seagal wishes he were that hard to kill.
And a third woman survives a failed marriage to Jeff Goldblum.
I rest my case.
4. We make our own traditions.
Do you think Will Smith’s little kid in this movie, who gets to watch the fragments of the alien mothership burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, is going to find fireworks deeply meaningful when he grows up?
Do you think he’s going to someday hand his friend a victory cigar that he’s not allowed to smoke until the fat lady sings, just like his dad used to do?
You bet (if he weren’t fictional, of course). That’s how our wacky American traditions and legends get made, and new ones are being made all the time.
In many of ways, our relatively short history is a bit unfortunate, but the freedom it affords us in this area — not to mention the joy we take in seizing these opportunities — is a true blessing.
And even the wackiest legends and traditions can be deeply meaningful to people. Just ask Steve Bartman.
3. Nobody talks as good as us.
The end of that speech was the first time I ever heard applause at the theater in the middle of a movie.
And that’s the first contact between humanity and a species from another planet. He simply welcomed him. What a nice guy.
2. Crazy people are our greatest natural resource.
Americans are always looking for the next big thing, and we know that if we do find it, there’ll be some crazy guy who was there first to show us how it works. And if there’s something we know needs to be done, but we don’t know how to do it or know anyone who does, once more we can thank God we live in America, where we cherish our crazy people.
When President Pullman insists that Area 51 doesn’t exist, and the Secretary of Defense corrects him, the humor comes from the truth that, for some things, crazy people know more than the President. In America, crazy people have borderline magical powers — for the precise period of time when you need them around. Then they go back to standing in front of you on line at CVS.
Some are cable guys/computer hackers. Some are xenobiologists. Some are just really good alcoholics. But all America’s crazy people are precious. So let them alone until you need them, and then sit back and watch them take over and save the day!
1. “I ain’t heard no fat lady!”
And, of course, the greatest point of pride in Independence Day — that even in the face of destruction and disillusionment, when the world degrades to a desperate losing fight against impossible odds, the American spirit still drives us to courage and our better natures. That while most national traditions have turned cynical or irrelevant when faced with the challenges of today’s world, America has not given up.
People think the world is too cruel to let the cowboy ride off into the sunset. That Americans are too provincial or unrealistic. But they miss the point, which is that to ride off into the sunset, you need a sunset. The American spirit knows how rough the world can be, which is why, at its best, it strives to spare its own people and others from those horrors as much as possible. Far from weakened by failure, it is at its strongest when there is a clear reason to protect what we value most. And it pops up in the darndest places. In short: you don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone.
The most startling thing about Independence Day is that the victory at the end seems powerful, complete and unashamed, even though most of the human race has died during the movie. But the world’s endless history of hardship has not crushed the American spirit, and the cheer with which all the heroes greet the victory is courage for tomorrow rather than regret for yesterday.
That is how, after two World Wars within a half-century, staring down an endless list of sins before and since, living in a seemingly hopeless world choking on pollution and corruption, Americans can still greet the flags and the fireworks and little Shriners in their little cars with a smile that enrages those who have opened their ears to the warbling strains of the fat lady.
We will not go quietly into the night!
We will not vanish without a fight.
We’re going to live on.
We’re going to survive!
Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!
Happy 4th of July, everybody!