7 best patriotic movies to watch on the Fourth of July

Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day
(Image credit: Alamy)

Independence Day celebrations are all about barbecues and fireworks, but if it gets too hot outside on July 4 and you want to cool off indoors while watching a movie, there are plenty of good options. Not a lot of movies actually take place on Independence Day or feature the holiday as a central plot point, but the spirit of July 4 thrives in films about American ingenuity and achievement.

Patriotism means more than just supporting your country, and these patriotic movies are sometimes critical of certain aspects of the United States. All of them are ultimately celebrations of the best America has to offer, which is exactly how Independence Day should be honored. Here are seven perfect movies to get you in a patriotic frame of mind.

'Independence Day'

Technically, the characters in this movie aren’t just fighting for the United States — they’re fighting for the entire Earth, to fend off a deadly alien invasion. But aside from some shots of global landmarks being destroyed, there’s very little attention paid to what’s going on in the rest of the world, and everyone involved in saving the day is American.

The final battle against the aliens happens on July 4, and Bill Pullman’s President Thomas J. Whitmore rallies the American forces with what may be the most famous presidential speech since the Gettysburg Address, despite being fictional. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Randy Quaid play different variations on archetypal American heroes, coming together against an existential threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'

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James Stewart’s title character represents a purity of heart that doesn’t exist and probably has never existed in American politics, but it’s still gratifying to watch naïve country bumpkin Jefferson Smith shake up the corrupt Washington establishment when he’s unexpectedly appointed as a senator. Smith is a literal Boy Scout, and he’s shocked to learn about backroom deals and favor trading, especially on the part of his home-state Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), whom he’s always idolized.

Stewart convincingly sells Smith’s aw-shucks charm along with his unwavering determination, as he plows ahead with his bill for a boys’ nature camp, with the help of his savvy secretary Saunders (Jean Arthur). Smith’s epic filibuster is an iconic movie moment, and it’s also a tribute to the power of the American political process — when it works the way it was intended.

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'Saving Private Ryan'

Saving Private Ryan (1998) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers - YouTube Saving Private Ryan (1998) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers - YouTube
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Steven Spielberg captures the horrors of war along with the nobility in his Oscar-winning World War II drama. Tom Hanks stars as the captain of a U.S. Army battalion assigned to rescue Pvt. James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), who’s been granted leave because all four of his brothers were killed in action. The movie explores the human cost of the mission, questioning whether rescuing this one man is potentially worth the lives of many other men.

The supporting cast includes Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Vin Diesel and Barry Pepper as other members of the battalion, each with their own personal demons to face during combat. From the intense opening battle scene on the beaches of Normandy through the elegiac ending, Spielberg keeps his focus on the toll that war takes on every person on the battlefield.

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'All the President’s Men'

All The President's Men (1976) Official Trailer - Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman Thriller HD - YouTube All The President's Men (1976) Official Trailer - Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman Thriller HD - YouTube
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Sometimes the most patriotic thing to do is to take down the president of the United States if he’s a corrupt liar. Alan J. Pakula’s film about the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal is a riveting thriller with brilliant lead performances from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. It’s a complex, layered story with a strong social conscience, giving the audience a sense of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein before plunging them into the center of the country’s biggest political cover-up to date.

It’s even more impressive that “All the President’s Men” was made so soon after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, providing both a timely snapshot of the national response and an intelligent reflection on what it means for the country. It puts most modern prestige TV current-events dramas to shame.

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Protest is an essential patriotic value, and Ava DuVernay’s film captures one of the most pivotal protests in American history, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) leads a march between the Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery, to rally for voting rights for Black Americans. DuVernay harrowingly depicts the brutality of the police response to the activists’ initial march, and she makes central figures like King and John Lewis (Stephan James) into fully realized characters rather than figures out of a history textbook.

“Selma” still provides an important history lesson, though, representing the turning point in King’s efforts to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to fully support voting rights legislation. It’s a stirring drama that reminds viewers of the sacrifices that were made to secure fundamental American rights.

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'The Right Stuff'

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Traveling into space has been presented as a patriotic prospect since the earliest days of NASA, and Philip Kaufman’s sprawling drama about America’s first astronauts is a key component of that mythologizing. Kaufman contrasts the achievements of pioneering space explorers like John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) with legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), who declined to join the space program.

That gives “The Right Stuff” a melancholy quality alongside its rousing feats of aeronautics. Kaufman never forgets the human stories behind the wonder of space exploration, which makes their accomplishments even more astonishing. The movie makes these towering national heroes into flawed, even sometimes unlikable people, bringing them satisfyingly back down to Earth.

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Dave (1993) Official Trailer - Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver Comedy HD - YouTube Dave (1993) Official Trailer - Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver Comedy HD - YouTube
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Would the United States be better off if it was run by a part-time actor? That’s the question raised by this genial comedy from director Ivan Reitman, starring Kevin Kline as the title character, a man who uncannily resembles the sleazy U.S. president (also Kline). Dave is hired as a double after the president suffers a stroke, and while he’s filling in for the incapacitated leader, he realizes that he’s being manipulated by greedy political operatives.

The kind-hearted Dave goes rogue, initiating his own plans for running the country, and winning the love of the first lady (Sigourney Weaver). “Dave” is a warm, funny take on American politics that values positivity over biting satire, with an optimistic attitude about good people making the U.S. a better place simply because it’s the right thing to do.

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Josh Bell

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and TV for Vulture, Inverse, CBR, Crooked Marquee and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.