1. “Don’t forget what you’re celebrating, and that’s the fact that a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, white males didn’t want to pay their taxes,” Dazed And Confused (1993)
The high school students in Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused don’t care about authority figures, even when those figures are anti-authority themselves. That’s never clearer than when teacher Ginny Stroud (Kim Krizan) releases her final class of the last day of the 1976 school year into the wild by telling them this cynical origin story of their country, right in the middle of all the “American bicentennial, Fourth Of July brouhaha.” And yet, like so many of their fellow Americans, they’re not thinking about that. The students may be physically just leaving the classroom, but mentally they’re already miles away, planning a summer of getting wasted, getting laid, and violently enforcing ridiculous social hierarchies—just as the founding fathers intended.
2. “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore,” The Newsroom (2012)
With typically articulate thunder, Aaron Sorkin opens his HBO series The Newsroom by establishing his latest man on the ideological verge, newsman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), with a speech railing against America’s ridiculously high opinion of itself. “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world,” McAvoy snaps at a young member of the “worst-period-generation-period-ever-period,” rattling off statistics reminding her of the nation’s abysmal standings in education, income, labor, and death, and its embarrassingly high rates of imprisonment, defense spending, and overall stupidity. Though it begins as an angry rant, it ends as a eulogy for when “we sure used to be,” lamenting a time when the country “aspired to intelligence. We didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior,” and “we didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn’t scare so easy.” But despite those aims at inspiration, the fact that McAvoy’s tirade is generally received as a case of temporary insanity underscores the show’s theme of how speaking truth to power doesn’t really matter when the powerless refuse to listen.
3. “Corruption is why we win,” Syriana (2005)
When Danny Dalton, an oilman and saliva monster played by Tim Blake Nelson, learns of his impending corruption charges, he sets off a glorious Fourth Of July fireworks show, a breathless string of insults about “some trust-fund prosecutor” and “some two-bit Congressman from nowhere,” all in caustic celebration of the land of opportunity. Everyone in Syriana profits to some degree off of the deadly unrest in the Middle East, yet Dalton finds himself the sacrificial lamb to the American ideal of “justice”—which, in the no-so-subtle Syriana, is the justice department itself. Writer Stephen Gaghan is so fluent in Sorkinese, he even drops allusions to authorities like Milton Friedman and the Nobel Prize with the implied “‘nuff said.” Then he gets to the meat of his argument: Corruption isn’t an aberration. Corruption is the American way. “We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it,” Dalton says. We the rich and powerful, anyway.
4. “The government is a bunch of corrupt thieves and rapists and robbers, and we are here to say that we don’t have to take it anymore!” Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)
By the time Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) makes this fervent declaration on the floor of the 1972 Republican National Convention, he’s already been through an odyssey that takes him from inspired innocent enlisting in the Marines to a bottomed-out, completely disillusioned alcoholic unable to reconcile his love of country with the way its government takes care of its veterans. After accidentally killing a member of his own platoon, Kovic can’t believe his XO brushes off the incident as insignificant. He’s severely wounded in a firefight, then ends up fighting to keep his legs in the Bronx Veterans Administration hospital, where patients are mired in squalor and tended to by apathetic, drug-addled nurses and doctors. As the wheelchair-confined Kovic spirals to rock bottom, his guilt and post-traumatic stress eventually give way to anger at the government he feels duped into serving, then abandoned when he needs it to return the favor.
5. “Do you ever get the feeling everything in America is completely fucked up?” Pump Up The Volume (1990)
As with all good opening dialogue, the first lines of 1990s teen-angst document Pump Up The Volume set a tone. Christian Slater’s any-town any-teen Mark Hunter uses this all-encompassing rage as the intro to a movie he spends hijacking the suburban airwaves as pirate-radio host Hard Harry, railing against the general state of things. “Everything is polluted!” Slater declares. “The environment, the government, the schools, you name it.” Though the film is pretty smart about positing this sort of unfocused teenage alienation as a temporary state, it’s hard not to imagine Slater’s character growing up to be a screenwriter on-call to punch up all the frothing anti-American monologues in this list.
6. “We’re narcissists. We care only about getting what we want no matter what the cost,” True Blood (2010)
One of the high points of the third season of True Blood comes when chief villain Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare) commandeers a TV studio, delivering a manifesto that sneers at the corruption of American values and the tacky vulgarity of what has replaced them. “Global warming, perpetual war, toxic waste, child labor, torture, genocide—that’s a small price to pay for your SUVs and flat-screen TVs, your blood diamonds, your designer jeans, your absurd, garish McMansions.” It may seem strange that Russell—who used to pal around with Hitler—would have a problem with genocide. But as a vampire on a show that uses the supernatural as a metaphor for the straight world’s fear of sexuality in general (and homosexuality in particular), Russell is really expressing the quintessential outcast’s rage over a society that’s morally bankrupt, yet would still presume to have its boot on his neck.
7. “We used to make shit in this country,” The Wire
Over five seasons, The Wire charted the downfall of countless common folk done in by institutional corruption, but few fell harder than Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), the tragic union leader at the center of the show’s second season. In an effort to create work for his struggling longshoremen, Sobotka attempts to play the system by its own rules, bribing politicians to support development along Baltimore’s docks by using money that’s dirtier than he realizes. When his subsequent arrest turns those pet projects toxic, effectively killing them, he sums up the season’s entire thesis in one admission of defeat. “You know what the trouble is?” he asks his lobbyist friend. “We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.” It’s a speech that says as much about his own bad decisions as it does about the American way of doing of things, but it illustrates why Sobotka, for all his faults, commanded such respect from his union brothers. In plain English, he captured the frustrations of every laborer who’s ever been downsized, marginalized, or otherwise left behind.
8. “This used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it,” Easy Rider (1969)
America was a better place back in the mythical “used to be,” but when exactly was that? It’s not clear what halcyon era ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) is referring to in his campfire chat with born-to-be-wild hippies Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), except that it was back when freedom actually meant something. (Well, for white guys, at least.) Unless he’s thinking of the Old West, it’s hard to imagine a time when a couple of scruffy longhairs in fringe and leather jackets would have been welcome to express their individual freedom. (Then again, Hanson is a guy who believes Venusians have been living among us since the ’40s, so he may not be the most reliable interpreter of American history.) Still, it’s hard to argue against the notion that things have gotten worse when Hanson ends up bludgeoned to death shortly after delivering his ode to what “used to be.”
9. “I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad,” Network (1976)
As anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) goes slowly mad on-air, this speech marks the point of no return, a moment of fed-up desperation in which he tries appealing to what’s left of his audience’s goodness and humanity. The speech excoriates both the American system for letting us down, and Americans for sitting by complacently as it happens. Beale ends by encouraging listeners to express their anger, screaming, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The irony is that, even as Beale delivers these liberating diatribes, he’s ensnared further and further in the very system he’s complaining about. His network executives immediately begin plotting to exploit his outrage right up until his death, building an ever-bigger ratings share off his pleas to turn off the TV and do something. And the more Beale tries to warn his audience, the more they’re passively entertained.
10. “This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own,” Killing Them Softly (2012)
The crime drama Killing Them Softly is based on a 1974 novel by George V. Higgins, but the movie is set against the backdrop of the 2008 economic collapse. Brad Pitt’s hired killer may be derided as a “cynical bastard,” but he’s the closest thing to an honest man in this movie, where the underworld has a lot of the same problems that are destroying corporate capitalism: The big bosses are mired in groupthink, and most everybody else is too drunk, drugged-out, or stupid to do their job. The final scene is set on election night, and Barack Obama’s victory speech plays in the background as Pitt realizes he’s getting stiffed. Pitt sneers at Obama’s claim that we’re “one people,” going after that “American saint,” Thomas Jefferson, “a rich wine snob who was sick of paying taxes to the Brits,” so he wrote down some eloquent words to inspire others to get themselves killed to protect his privileges “while he drank his wine and fucked his slave girl.” America, Pitt concludes, “is not a country. It’s just a business. Now, fuckin’ pay me.”
11. “The thing about me and Bob, and pretty much all of us, was that we hated rednecks more than anything else, period. Because rednecks for us were America incarnate. And America? Well, fuck America.” SLC Punk! (1999)
Matthew Lillard’s motor-mouthed punk rocker opens SLC Punk! with this voiceover and a black screen, and it serves as a sort of mission statement for the film that follows: Lillard’s Stevo is a hyper, anti-authoritarian, and occasionally violent smartass living in Salt Lake City, an especially conservative outpost in a country led at the time by Ronald Reagan (punk’s Public Enemy No. 1). Stevo and his friends take the hostility they encounter for their looks and lifestyle and turn it around as an indictment of the intolerant country that purports to celebrate freedom. Because rednecks are some of the biggest offenders of that intolerance, Stevo and his friend Bob begin SLC Punk! by beating “America incarnate” with pipes. Take that, oppressors!