The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Patriotism roused by national tragedy usually assumes a unified front. In 1941, Pearl Harbor erased public dissent and sent America off to war. Four years later, the haggard faces and battered bodies of returning veterans served as a blunt reminder, amid the celebration of victory and global dominance, of patriotism's cost. No film examining that time better details the contradictions, uncertainties, and hardships of patriotic sacrifice than William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, made just after the war in a Hollywood full of its own returning vets and bereft of its prewar innocence. Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and nonactor Harold Russell (an ex-paratrooper who lost both hands in a training accident) beautifully capture the real America of insecure husbands, over-aged soda jerks, and ex-football stars struggling to find meaning in family, work, and love as a nation they fought for bustles into the future without them. Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo are the women who give shape and sense to that struggle. Winner of seven Oscars (including Best Picture), Best Years faces up to untidy truths postwar America seldom cared to acknowledge--alcoholism, infidelity, physical imperfection--with poignance and humor, showing us that the best parts of ourselves might not always be what we imagine in our red, white, and blue dreams.