In Captain America: The First Avenger, in theaters July 22nd, Steve Rogers is a WWII soldier who is transformed into the superhero Captain America by a top-secret government organization dedicated to defending American ideals against the Nazis. In most contemporary film, one must have either supernatural abilities (Superman, Green Lantern,Spider-man), super-secret government training (James Bond) or just superhuman levels of bad-assery (Batman, Jason Bourne) to be a hero. Hollywood seems to have forgotten that the everyman (or woman) who stands up for his or her rights and beliefs without having super-anything is just as capable of bringing down the baddies, saving lives and changing the world. As proof that we mere mortals are capable of extraordinary achievements, MM presents some cinematic average Joes and Janes who represent what it means to be a true American hero.
Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
directed by Frank Capra
The idealist Jefferson Smith, played with the utmost sincerity by Jimmy Stewart, is thrilled at his chance to change the world after being appointed to a seat on the U.S. Senate. However, Smith soon realizes that there are politics behind the politics, and that he is mere a puppet of the corrupt government figures he once admired. When Smith tries to confront these crooked politicos, he is framed for bribery. But the scandal doesn’t stop Smith, who plans a filibuster to prevent the Senate from passing a dishonest bill. Jefferson Smith is a true American hero because he never stops fighting for the underdog, no matter how high the odds are stacked against him. “You all think I’m licked,” he says, “Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause!”
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
directed by Robert Mulligan
In To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the classic novel by Harper Lee, a young girl named Scout (Mary Badham) recounts the struggles of her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends an innocent black man against charges of raping a white woman. The colorblind Finch, who believes that justice is not a right that belongs exclusively to those with pale skin, is played by a perfectly-cast Peck, who won an Oscar for his performance. Finch defends Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) despite the fact that doing so means Finch’s own family is ostracized by the prejudiced community. Most importantly, Finch sets a fine example for his children, showing them how to stand up for what they believe in, even if those beliefs are unpopular with the majority.
Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) in Serpico (1973)
directed by Sidney Lumet
It is the duty of the American police force to uphold the law and protect and serve the citizens. But what happens when those who have sworn to enforce the law start breaking it? Based on a true story, plainclothes detective Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) single-handedly tries to take down corrupt New York City police officers. Serpico refuses to stand idly by as his colleagues take advantage of their positions of authority, and even though his life is threatened by those he attempted to expose, Serpico continues to fight against corruption until the truth about his colleagues is brought to light at the Knapp Commission hearings.
Norma Rae Webster (Sally Field) in Norma Rae (1979)
directed by Martin Ritt
Unions protect our workforce, helping to ensure fair wages, benefits and better working conditions for those they serve. As seen in Norma Rae, forming unions is a tricky business, because workers are often afraid to go up against the corporations that employ them. Unlike her peers, the textile factory worker Norma Rae Webster (based on real-life union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton) would not back down in her fight to establish a union, even though the factory management did everything possible to stop her. In the film’s most iconic and memorable scene, Norma Rae convinces her colleagues to unionize when she stands on a worktable holding up a sign that says “Union” until the other workers stop their machines and walk out. Field, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, got so into character as the impassioned, blue-collar Norma Rae that she broke the ribs of a “policeman” during the scene where her character is escorted from the factory.
Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) in Erin Brockovich (2000)
directed by Steven Soderbergh
Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her performance as the real-life heroine Erin Brockovich, a single mother and legal assistant who pressures her boss, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), into filing a class action lawsuit against the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, which knowingly contaminated the water in the poor California town of Hinkley. As a result of the contaminated water, many of Hinkley’s townspeople suffered from mysterious illnesses and went bankrupt trying to pay their medical bills. Brockovich’s tell-it-like-it-is manner and promises of justice earned the trust of the Hinkley residents, who were afraid to take on the powerful PG&E on their own. Together, Erin and Masry collect evidence and prove that PG&E was in the wrong, finally bringing peace of mind—and a large chunk of change—to their Hinkley clients.