Independence Day is here once more, but over the past year, the American Idea has experienced a jolt, to put it mildly. Whether we’re looking at our standing in the world, the dignity of the presidency or our unity as a national community, it’s hard to assign us particularly good marks in 2017. So to help you with your July 4 planning, here’s a roundup of great pop culture that can help us remember what’s best about the United States, and reminds us that even when things look grim, our cultural contributions are one of our great strengths at home, and our great gifts to the world at large.

If You’re In the Mood for Pure Americana: Roundups of patriotic pop culture often tend toward the bellicose, whether Rocky’s beating Ivan Drago, George Patton is winning World War II or Will Smith is punching an alien in the face in “Independence Day.” But my favorite distilled slice of Americana is “Bull Durham,” Ron Shelton’s gentle romantic comedy about a minor league baseball fan (Susan Sarandon) who has an affair with a player on her favorite team each summer, and ends up choosing between a talented but erratic young pitcher (Tim Robbins) and the seasoned catcher (Kevin Costner) who has been brought to the team to develop the younger man. “Bull Durham” has one of the great all-time scripts. And though it’s loving toward baseball, the film’s vision of the American idea recognizes that the sport is tangled up in race, masculinity, sex and class. It’s sharp without ever being dour, and romantic without lapsing into blindness, and it’s my annual July 4 pick.

If You Want to Revisit the Founding Fathers: The best book I’ve read on early America in recent years is “George Washington’s Journey,” by T.H. Breen. A chronicle of Washington’s visit to the colonies early in his presidency, it’s essentially a look at the invention of America, from the debates over what Washington’s title should be, to the development of a patriotic pageantry. Washington’s personality emerges from the pages with vivid shading I hadn’t really understood before. And at a moment when the presidency is being used as a stage for a degraded kind of theater, it’s both wistful and reinvigorating to remember when the institution was turned to higher purposes.

If You Want to Introduce a Kid in Your Life to American History: Get them any of Ann Rinaldi’s historical novels. Rinaldi, who has written enough books to fill an entire kid’s summer, revisits America’s past through the eyes of teenagers, often girls. I’ve never read a bad one, but I would particularly recommend “A Break With Charity,” which explores the Salem Witch Trials, “Numbering All The Bones,” a wrenching look at the unfinished business of the Civil War and “Finishing Becca,” about a servant working in the Shippen household during the Revolutionary War and witnessing the courtship of Peggy Shippen by the future traitor Benedict Arnold.

If You’re Craving a Western: Read “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne or watch David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water.” The former chronicles the Comanche struggle to remain independent from colonial expansion by both Spain and France, and then from the United States. The latter follows two brothers who are robbing banks in an attempt to pay off the reverse mortgage on their mother’s land and the Texas Rangers who are trying to catch them. Both interrogate the romantic idea of the American West without abandoning it entirely. And both are terrific, propulsive stories. You might even consider making them a multimedia double-header.

If You Can’t Stop the Beat: Try “Selena,” a biopic about the late Queen of Tejano Music, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, or “Hairspray” – either John Waters’s original, or the musical reimagining of it. Pop culture is a huge part of American identity, and one of our major contributions to the world. Both of these movies explore what happens when Americans get turned on to a new genre of music, and as a result, start talking to and dancing with people they might not have socialized with before. They’re vibrant defenses of cultural exchange, and of collective joy.


If You’re Feeling Down on the American Idea: Start David Milch’s “Deadwood” or Michael Bay’s “Pain and Gain.” The former, a brilliant HBO drama, explores the muck from which Americans built their new societies in the West, with all the scabrous humor, colorful swearing and skepticism about human nature that you might expect. And even if you hate the “Transformers” movies, give “Pain and Gain” a shot: It’s Bay’s purest auteurist statement, a grim but very funny story about what happens when the American Dream gets decoupled from hard work. Both of these stories explore the warping of American ideals, but isn’t one of our greatest potential strengths the ability to interrogate ourselves? Plus, when Dwayne Johnson is president of the United States, you’ll want to have seen every movie he starred in; this is one of his best, strangest performances.

If You Want to Watch a Rousing, All-American Sports Drama: You can’t go wrong with either Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” or Peter Yates’s “Breaking Away,” about an American obsessed with competitive cycling. Neither movie will lock you into a jingoistic narrative about America emerging triumphant over the rest of the world. Instead, they’re celebrations of passion and determination. “Breaking Away” has one of the all-time great opening sequences for a sports movie, too.

If You Feel Compelled to Watch the Best Movie Ever Made About the Downfall of a President: There is only one choice: Andrew Fleming’s “Dick,” which recasts Deep Throat as two teenage girls (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst, both magnificent) who stumble into a job as White House dog walkers. It is wonderfully silly, and a hilarious evisceration not just of Nixon (Dan Hedaya), but of all the adults who had anything to do with Watergate. As a bonus, Will Ferrell plays Bob Woodward.

Alyssa Rosenberg is a columnist for The Washington Post

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