The Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. While others spend their time with fireworks and grilling hamburgers, for me 1996 gave birth to a new Fourth of July tradition, a film that must be watched every year.
Yes, I am talking about Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day.
For those of you who would rather read:
Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in this history of mankind. “Mankind”—that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom, not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution—but from annihilation. We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day when the world declared in one voice: we will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!
I am not one for excessive patriotism, but President Whitmore’s speech always makes me want to pump my fist in the air and cheer along with the film’s fighter pilots. As the speech emphasizes, at its heart Independence Day is a film about connection to others and caring for the world in which we live and share with others. This is seen most prominently in the lives—and deaths—of the characters.
Our heroes are shown to be men deeply in connection to others. Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is a president who finds it difficult to adjust to life as a politician, yet shows great concern for his people and his nation when the alien threat appears. He cares for his family and throughout the film has his daughter by his side. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) shows concern for the planet, demonstrated through his obsession with recycling, and is still in love with his ex-wife, Constance Spano (Margaret Colin). Levinson’s father is his companion throughout the film and they are shown to care for one another. Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) has his girlfriend, Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox), and her son, plus a deep friendship with his fellow pilot Jimmy Wilder (Harry Connick, Jr.).
Those who suffer or die in the film lack connection or concern for others. Dubrow’s fellow exotic dancer, Tiffany (Kiersten Warren), is one of the first to die in the film. At the club where the women work, Tiffany shows Dubrow a sign she has made, expressing her intent to climb to the top of a tall building to join others in welcoming the aliens to Earth. Dubrow begs Tiffany to promise that she will not follow through with her plan, and Tiffany agrees. But Tiffany soon joins the others, having lied to Dubrow, and she pays for this with her death when the aliens unleash their weapon on the building. Tiffany’s connection with Dubrow is shown to be insincere: Dubrow expresses genuine concern for her friend’s safety, but Tiffany does not recognize, or respect, that concern. Instead of seeking connection with the humans around her, she seeks it in the newly arrived aliens and, unfortunately for her, the aliens of Independence Day do not care to connect with humans.
Whitmore’s wife, Marilyn Whitmore (Mary McDonnell), is one of the more prominent and established characters to die, but why is that? She has a family, a husband and daughter. She is the First Lady of the United States, which one might argue is a position which connects her to others. However, her characterization is far different from Thomas Whitmore’s. While he chafes under the role of politician, she embraces it. He calls her when the aliens first appear and pleads with her to flee to safety, but her concern is that the president is being “criticized” by the press and she wants to continue her interviews to defend him. She then asks about the well-being of their daughter. In this moment, the film establishes that her primary concern is political, not for her family. Additionally after being found by Dubrow, Marilyn Whitemore makes the idle chitchat of a politician with their constituent, asking about Dubrow’s son, his father, and what Dubrow does for a living. She does not seek connection in this exchange: it is a purely surface level conversation. She sits, firmly composed, as she sips from her cup as though she were at a dinner party, not in the middle of a worldwide disaster.
Other smaller examples abound throughout the film: Marty Gilbert (Harvey Fierstein), David Levinson’s boss, is killed. Earlier in the film, he ignores Levinson when he speaks and, when Levinson eventually convinces him that people in the city are in danger, Gilbert goes through a list of people he must warn, mentioning “I gotta call my lawyer” then pauses and says “Eh, forget my lawyer.” On the surface level, this is a reference to the common joke that people hate lawyers. But we can also view it as a fundamental flaw in Gilbert’s character, that he does not care about all individuals. Unlike Whitmore’s speech, which resonates with the message of a united mankind, people like Gilbert are not united with their fellow man when faced with a common enemy. This sentiment is the antithesis of the film’s message.
Another minor character Albert Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), the U.S. Secretary of Defense and former director of the CIA, suffers due to a lack of concern for others. He encourages the president to use nuclear attacks against the aliens while others, such as Levinson, worry about civilian casualties and the effect on the planet. He is a man so concerned with his own safety that he is willing to jeopardize, or even sacrifice, others to ensure his own survival. He pays for his selfishness when he is fired from his position.
Yet through his character the movie demonstrates that no one is beyond redemption. In the final assault on the aliens, he is shown seeking the comfort of connection with others. Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch) dons a yarmulke and leads a group of survivors in prayer. It is a mixed group, visibly of race, but also of religion, acknowledged when Nimzicki denies being Jewish. But, in the face of imminent death, mankind is united: despite their earlier differences, Julius Levinson welcomes Nimzicki into the comfort of the circle.
It is in the face of a common enemy that mankind unites: this enemy is death, disguised as a ravaging alien race. When the alien weapon powers up above their heads, those on the roof with Tiffany crowd together and one woman grabs the shoulder of a nearby man. Through moments such as this and Levinson’s prayer circle, we see that Emmerich’s Independence Day is a film about connection and caring, about the “new meaning” of the world mankind: “united.”