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The History of America in 30 Films (Part 7)

Imagine, if you will, a movie theater that, over the course of a single month, will show films covering the entire length of American history. Each night they’ll play a movie that evokes a certain period, moving chronologically to the present day.

Over the course of several articles, I’ll pretend to be the programmer for this imaginary theater, doing my best to capture America over 30 films. Each of these movies will serve as an entry in a larger story… think of it as the American Cinematic Universe.

Before reading up, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

This FINAL week (we made it!), we’ll be moving into the modern day.

1976: Dazed and Confused (1993)

Dir. Richard Linklater

American history in films: DAZED AND CONFUSED

You’re probably asking yourself why Dazed and Confused belongs on a list about American history, but hear me out! So far we’ve mostly covered movies about “historical events,” but including movies that capture day-to-day life at a precise moment in time is equally as important in creating our timeline. Dazed and Confused, which just so happens to take place in the year of America’s bicentennial, perfectly captures what life was like for many teenagers in the 1970s. Everything’s here: the music, the clothes, the cars, etc.

Dazed and Confused takes place entirely over the course of a single day: May 28th, the last day of school. And although the movie mostly focuses on all the partying and drinking that comes along with celebrating newfound freedom, it’s incredibly heartwarming (without ever becoming overly sentimental). It’s one of the best movies of the 1990s and one of the best movies about the 1970s.

1989: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Dir. Spike Lee

American history in films: DO THE RIGHT THING

Do the Right Thing is included here for similar reasons as Dazed and Confused. While the movies take place in totally different worlds (1980s Bedford-Stuyvestant, Brooklyn and 1970s suburban Texas, respectively) they each capture a very specific slice-of-life. Also, like Dazed, it takes place over the course of a single day: the hottest of the summer. The sweltering heat exacerbates the racial tensions of the neighborhood, which are already reaching a boiling point.

The movie remains Spike Lee’s masterpiece, and it isn’t hard to see why. There’s perhaps no greater film on the subject of race. But Do the Right Thing is more than just that — filled with distinct characters and personalities, it remains a fascinating snapshot of a neighborhood that’s changed a whole lot since 1989. Sure, it might not depict actual “historical events,” but it belongs on this list not only as one of the best films about the 1980s, but also as one of the most important cinematic events of the 1980s.

2001: United 93 (2006)

Dir. Paul Greengrass

American history in films: UNITED 93

Many people say they wouldn’t ever care to see United 93 — they lived through the events of September 11th in real time, and they don’t see the point of re-living that horrible day in movie-form. And that’s totally understandable; United 93 is a tough watch (when I saw it, I personally had to pause it multiple times just to take a breath), but a riveting one. Sure, we all know what happened on 9/11, but watching the events slowly play out over the course of the film, whether they be in an air traffic control tower or on one of the planes itself, makes for an incredibly intense viewing experience. You know how it’s all going to end, and yet as things start going wrong, you can’t help but be just as terrified as you’d be watching any horror movie. It may not be a movie I’d recommend, but it’s one of the most powerful around.

And as nobody reading this needs to know, September 11th, 2001 will always remain as one of the most momentous in American history. It had to be included in some form on this list. Luckily, director Paul Greengrass treats the material with the utmost respect, and turns a movie that might seem like a bad idea on paper into something quite moving.

2001-2011: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

American history in films: ZERO DARK THIRTY

Just as important as the events of September 11th itself is America’s reaction to it, which no movie captures better than Zero Dark Thirty. Although it mainly deals with the manhunt for, and subsequent death of Osama bin Laden, the film also provides a glimpse into the overall War on Terror. This fight against terrorism, historically speaking, really sort of defines American history in the first decade of this century.

Zero Dark Thirty, although receiving very positive reviews, was met with a fair share of controversy. Some felt it overplayed the role of torture/enhanced interrogating methods. Others felt it downplayed President Obama’s role in the death of bin Laden. A quick Google search will show that many people have very strong opinions about Zero Dark Thirty. In a way, though, the controversy over the movie itself makes it the perfect movie to define the era — the War on Terror itself is both praised and criticized by a variety of experts, making the movie just as controversial as the very events it depicts.

2003-2010: The Social Network (2010)

Dir. David Fincher

American history in films: THE SOCIAL NETWORK

For those of you keeping track at home, this is actually the 31st film on the list, but 30 just wasn’t enough to contain all of American history (I’m already kicking myself over all of the things I failed to include… even 100 movies wouldn’t have been enough!). The Social Network is the perfect movie to close things up, as it sort of defines where we are in American history. The rise of the internet has been perhaps the most defining trend of the last twenty or so years, and Facebook (along with social media in general) has played a large part in that. So what better way to end this list, which you’re reading on the internet (maybe you even saw the link to this list on Facebook), than with the movie about the creation of Facebook? It’s the perfect stopping point.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin certainly takes some creative liberties here. Mark Zuckerberg probably (maybe) wasn’t as much of a jerk as he’s portrayed here, and his goals and motivations are certainly adjusted to suit dramatic needs. But, inaccuracies and all, this still stands as a potent origin story for a website that almost all of us use. America has come a long way from its humble beginnings, and this is where we are now: the internet age.

That does it! What’d you think of the series? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for following along.

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