OK, Tomatoes, tax day is here. And though we’ll concede that few enjoy forking over their hard-earned riches to Uncle Sam, we at Rotten Tomatoes thought it would be a good time to look on the bright side, and reflect upon how your tax money is allocated — in order of our rough approximation of federal expenditures. We’ve compiled a list of movies that proudly displays your tax dollars at work — cinematic portrayals of the dedicated men and women of our federal government working tirelessly in the public interest, or at least those citizens that benefit from our national largesse. So send your tax forms off to the IRS, and join us on a tour of your government programs at work on the silver screen!
Every year, the US government pours hundreds of billions of dollars into various Defense initiatives. Thus, it’s comforting to know our tax dollars are being spent wisely, ensuring that our skies are protected by people with names like Maverick and Goose, Iceman and Slider, Cougar and Merlin. In Tony Scott’s Top Gun, then-rising star Tom Cruise is Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a gifted renegade pilot with a wicked competitive streak and a knack for mischief who is sent to the elite Top Gun training school for naval aviators. Sure, Maverick may “gamble with a $30 million aircraft” from time to time, and his unorthodox techniques and penchant for bedding female instructors could be seen as weaknesses, but he does our Navy proud when the chips are down. Even his chief rival, ace pilot Iceman (Val Kilmer), eventually comes around, and though he never quite brings himself to call Maverick “the best,” he knows he’s found a wingman for life, and when you’ve got MiGs constantly zipping around, that’s really all that matters.
George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind Act arrived far too late to bring accountability to the likes of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky Ramone, those irrepressible (and long-in-the-tooth) juvenile delinquents who spent more time sniffing glue and beating on brats than hitting the books. As Joey himself proclaims during the film’s theme song: “I don’t care about history/Cuz that’s not where I want to be” — words that would surely chill the spines of school administrators whose charges are scoring low on standardized tests. In Roger Corman’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, principals are like Spinal Tap drummers, unable to control their students’ collective appetite for such punk rock classics as “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Pinhead,” and “Teenage Lobotomy.” It’s likely the Department of Education would grit its teeth before allocating any of its budget to Lombardi High, a school where the average student’s language skills consist of shouting “gabba gabba hey!” and little more.
The next time you find yourself battling a defective appliance, don’t be so quick to blame the Maytag man: you could be facing the effects of a malevolent alien that has infested your local power grid, like the one in 1988’s Pulse. Starring Shock Treatment vet Cliff DeYoung and featuring an early appearance by Joey and Matthew Lawrence, this would-be “ultimate shocker” may have failed to jolt the box office, but it does pose a crucial question: What good is having a Department of Energy if they can’t safeguard our power supply from intergalactic freeloaders?
Its title has become shorthand for uncomfortable showers, but at its core, Silkwood is really the story of a tenacious labor activist (Meryl Streep) whose willingness to annoy her bosses is doubly brave — not only does she run the risk of losing her job, but she also happens to work at a fabrication site for plutonium fuel rods, and when she makes a lot of noise about safety corners being cut at the plant, surprise! She ends up becoming contaminated with radiation. Of course, things eventually get a lot worse for Streep’s character — based on Karen Silkwood, a real-life chemical technician who died in a suspicious single-car accident in 1974 — but what might seem on the surface to be a cautionary tale for union organizers is instead a rallying cry against employer dishonesty and unsafe workplaces, as well as a poster child for the sort of acting, directing, and screenwriting labor (ahem) that’s likely to pick up multiple Oscar nominations during awards season.
So just what would the Department of Transportation think of Speed? While it fantastically depicts Los Angeles public transportation as occupied by functional, normal citizens, it also reveals weaknesses in the Californian infrastructure. Shouldn’t more of your tax dollars be spent on security, lest we allow riddle-parsing real-life madmen like Dennis Hopper near our bus depots? Or how about we get some more crews out there to finally finish up the freeway; that bus clearing that 50-foot gap looked a little unsafe. But you know what we don’t need? Raising the ceilings in our subway tunnels. Otherwise, how else would Keanu Reeves have put a stop to Hopper?
Since we’re sure most of you aren’t particularly enamored with the Internal Revenue Service right about now, we thought it would be a good time to point out a little-known fact: The infinitely more awesome Secret Service is also part of the Department of the Treasury. Yes, those black-clad, joke-free dudes who protect the president are under the same jurisdiction as the IRS, since they’re also tasked with investigating fraud and identity theft. During In the Line of Fire, Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) does it all; not only does he apprehend a counterfeiter (a pre-Jigsaw Tobin Bell) in the movie’s opening scenes, he also must save the president from assassination aficionado Mitch Leary (John Malkovich). Leary knows Frank’s secret: he was on the scene when Kennedy was assassinated, and his inability to save the president continues to haunt him. However, nothing will stop Frank from defending the unnamed president, even if it means taking a bullet for him.
Forget the pumped-up sequels that used jingoism and rocket launchers to approximate higher dramatic stakes. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) eventually became synonymous with beefy, brain-dead action, but anyone who’s seen First Blood knows that before it was a franchise, this was the relatively simple (and actually rather poignant) tale of a Vietnam vet who’s haunted by violence and hunted by a sheriff (Brian Dennehy) whose petty vendetta against the long-haired drifter mushrooms into a deadly imbroglio. The story may be a mite outlandish, but underneath the firepower, First Blood‘s real ammo is a serious — and, at the time, sorely needed — plea for tolerance and aid for veterans. The animated series Rambo: The Force of Freedom, on the other hand, was a plea for someone to change the channel, but that’s another story.
“Why worry? Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back,” muses Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) in Ghostbusters. Despite an outbreak of spectral activity in New York City, the Ghostbusters are not immune to the long arm of the law — in this case, the EPA. Seems our heroes are storing the captured spirits in an unregulated on-site containment unit, one that a particularly overzealous official named Walter Peck (William Atherton) would like to examine. Unfortunately, when Venkman treats Peck with customary disdain, Peck returns with a court order to shut down the containment unit — thereby unleashing a Pandora’s Box of ghouls upon the city.
“You’re trying to tell me the FBI’s gonna pay me to learn to surf?” wonders Special Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves). In Point Break, alacrity with a surfboard is essential if Utah is to infiltrate the Ex-Presidents, a masked posse of surf enthusiasts/bank robbers led by philosophical thrill junkie Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Utah took an unconventional path to the bureau (he was a star quarterback at Ohio State before an injury redirected him to law enforcement), so it’s not altogether surprising that his undercover work isn’t exactly by-the-book; in addition to his pursuit of justice, Utah is also on the trail of 100 percent pure adrenaline. He’s also got a romance going with a surfer chick (Lori Petty) and a bromance with Bodhi, both of which might compromise his mission. Not unreasonably, one of his superiors is concerned with the effect such wild times might wreak on the eff-bee-eye budget; in one tense moment, he stridently asks the unorthodox agent, “Do you think that taxpayers would like it, Utah, if they knew that they were paying a federal agent to surf and pick up girls?”
Long before they became the go-to government agency for wardrobe malfunction complaints, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission had to deal with scofflaws like Mark Hunter (Christian Slater), the Phoenix high school student whose nightlife as a pirate radio DJ named “Happy Harry Hard-On” earns him the clandestine devotion of Camper Van Beethoven fans all across suburbia — and the wrath of FCC agents who are called in to investigate by concerned local authorities after a rash of troublesome teen behavior. Harry gets hauled to the hoosegow for his misdeeds, but he sparks a golden age of independent radio in the process, and he also leaves behind one of the era’s coolest soundtracks. Consider us pumped.
Some star-studded epic thrillers — like 1970’s Airport, for example — try to draw the audience into their disaster-driven storylines through sheer force of spectacle. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion uses a different tactic, choosing instead to simply scare the hell out of viewers by killing famous faces in a blandly gross fashion. Inspired by such modern health scares as the 2003 SARS epidemic, Contagion imagines a terrifyingly likely scenario in which one nasty virus quickly works its way around the globe while panicked researchers and health workers — including officials from our own Department of Health and Human Services — toil around the clock to halt its spread. It’s the movie on this list most likely to make you want to wash your hands… which really isn’t such a bad thing.
Wall Street is one of those perennials that blooms every time a financial scandal (or worse, a recession) hits. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) certainly embodies the spirit of the get-rich-quick 1980s, but this unapologetic capitalist’s name was invoked when Enron and WorldCom came crashing down decades later. Gekko is so unscrupulous that he’s more than willing to utilize inside information and use underling Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a go-getting stockbroker, to manipulate the stock price of his father’s company. However, Bud has some scruples, and refuses to wholly swallow Gekko’s “greed is good” ethos. He eventually decides to play ball with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the independent body that oversees the stock market, bringing the slippery Gekko to justice. Still, greed was good for Douglas, who picked up a Best Actor Oscar for the role, and became an ironic anti-hero to ambitious Wall Street up-and-comers.
Who says tree-huggers are a bunch of wusses? In Firestorm, a gang of prison escapees set large swaths of Wyoming forest ablaze as a cover to retrieve a hidden stash of more than $30 million — and take an attractive hostage to boot. (Given the large percentage of national forest acreage in Wyoming, this is not an insubstantial problem.) But they didn’t count on “smokejumper” Jesse Graves (Howie Long). Profoundly internalizing the words of Smokey the Bear, Graves realizes that only he can prevent these non-eco-friendly thugs from getting away with their nefarious plan — preferably while meting out a rough brand of backwoods justice. In the real world, a greater number of forest fires in recent years has forced the United States Forest Service to utilize a much higher portion of its budget for fire suppression — which has drawn federal dollars away from the service’s other programs.