In the last 40 years, if you said a character named Captain Christopher Jones would be a figurehead in a movie about the first Thanksgiving, those born within that time frame would think it was the name of the protagonist in a romantic comedy taking place on Thanksgiving. Such is the shift of themes in Hollywood over the decades in movies that represent the meaning of Thanksgiving or the days surrounding late November. However, finding one Thanksgiving movie that captures the true spirit of the holiday is ultimately based on your personal cinematic perceptions.
One thing we can say: There never has been a movie set on Thanksgiving that doesn't have some kind of discord or other tribulation for the sake of watchable plot. This doesn't necessarily mean that those plots didn't eventually have comedy before arguably becoming sentimental at the end to remind you it's the holidays. Yet what about those early movies I referenced above that depicted the meaning of Thanksgiving?
Earliest Hollywood didn't make movies taking place on Thanksgiving, perhaps because there was a contentious political battle over when the holiday took place. For those seeing "Lincoln" this weekend, consider the irony in Honest Abe once setting a long precedent for Thanksgiving being recognized during the final Thursday of November. In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt unofficially moved Thanksgiving to the previous Thursday. At the eve of World War II, FDR's more commercial stance led to a (surprise!) bitter battle between Republicans and Democrats over when Thanksgiving should officially be celebrated.
Yes, that Congressional story could be a Thanksgiving movie on its own in the future. But after that initial political event was federally settled in 1942, Hollywood only briefly took Thanksgiving commercial with "Miracle on 34th Street" five years later. By 1952, Hollywood went sacred with "Plymouth Adventure", starring Spencer Tracy as Captain Christopher Jones of the Mayflower. As you'd expect, it was partially fiction, though set a reverent cinematic tone for Thanksgiving that didn't change until the 1980s.
What was it that changed in the 1980s that led to a few films finally being set on Thanksgiving? Perhaps it was the greed mentality of the era and the beginnings of Black Friday as we know it today. Doing so romanticized this time of year to the point where many romantic comedies started being set on Thanksgiving or around the holidays. Just take a look at how it influenced Woody Allen with 1986's "Hannah and Her Sisters."
Hollywood even toyed with an odd horror movie genre where something slightly morose takes place on Thanksgiving weekend. That genre has recurred periodically since the 1980s with such films as Home Sweet Home" and more recent "The Boogeyman." However, these didn't provide one particular magic formula for audiences: Comedy.
When finding one movie that represents Thanksgiving better than any other in the modern era, it has to be 1987's "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." In fact, it set a comedy pattern that's been copied right up through the 2010s with much less success. You can also arguably call it the best film in the movie careers of Steve Martin and John Candy.
If you call it holiday black comedy, it still represents travel during the Thanksgiving in a way that forever brings guffaw communion. And it has a relationship story, plus a sentimental ending. Hence, it officiates this film as capturing the full spirit of a modern Thanksgiving.
Then again, that love triangle among Captain Jones, William Bradford, and Dorothy Bradford in "Plymouth Adventure" comes close to unintended holiday romanticism.