In two days on Independence Day, we Americans will gather around to honor the founding of our country… by blowing stuff up and eating barbecued ribs. And then someone will play that ridiculous Lee Greenwood song. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great fun. But it doesn’t really have much to do with national pride or national heroes. Fortunately, there are some very good miniseries and documentaries to fill in that gap. They pay proper respect to some truly great Americans and some very trying times in American history. Watching them on the 4th of July is a spectacular way to honor your country. Here are four recommendations.
Band of Brothers (2001)
You have no idea how many times I’ve gotten choked up watching Band of Brothers. It almost always airs as part of a marathon, featuring every episode. No matter what else I’m doing, I make it a point to watch at least one episode whenever I find it. The courage and sacrifice made by the men of Easy Company- and all veterans- boggles my mind. It makes me swell up with pride to know that I share the same national ethos with them. The show’s intro sequence sucks me in every single time.
Eyes on the Prize (1987)
We Americans love our freedom (seriously, did you watch that Lee Greenwood video?). Nobody struggled for freedom more in this country than African-Americans. An army of great heroes, and great Americans, were forged out of that struggle. Most people know about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but there were loads more who deserve recognition. Thankfully, there’s the 14 hour documentary from PBS, Eyes on the Prize, which documents the saga that was the search for civil rights in America for African-Americans. Warning: there’s a really disturbing image at the end of this video. But it’s important that it be seen.
John Adams (2008)
This HBO miniseries wasn’t perfect in the same way that Band of Brothers was, but it was charged with a really difficult task. HBO had to make colonial America come to life in the 21st century. Fortunately, a stellar cast fortified their efforts. Using rock star historian David McCullough’s book of the same name as source material also helped greatly. The dramatization really hit home with me, and worked as an impressive educational tool about the founding fathers. And like Band of Brothers, I love the intro.
The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns (1990)
At just over 10 hours long, Ken Burns’ documentary is a marvelously thorough- and human- masterpiece. It’s so impressive that it was given 40 film and TV honors. It took Burns longer to make it (six years) than the Civil War itself. The beauty of the documentary is that he lets the participants tell the story themselves. It’s one thing to look at still photos from the era, but Burns brings them to life (using a technique that’s now known as “the Burns Effect”) by reading letters and descriptions of events from those who lived through it. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in American history. I can’t find any clips of the documentary itself, so here’s the unofficial theme song, which was used 25 times throughout.