America's Heart & Soul
Directed by Louis Schwartzberg. (2004, PG, 88 min.)
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., July 9, 2004
It’s easy to be cynical about this 88-minute paean to the American "everyman." Seldom is heard a discouraging word, and although the people and situations are all real, America’s Heart & Soul feels entirely unlike a documentary – and more like a Six Flags stage production, replete with fireworks finale. Joel McNeely’s orchestral score alternates between tempestuous crashes and booms (for the moments of high drama) and Copland-esque quiet grandeur (for the subjects’ stately off-camera gazing). These are the film’s only two modes, so prepare to be batted back and forth between them like a well-loved cat toy. The technical credits are excellent, and Schwartzberg – a special-effects photographer who supplies time-lapse and additional footage for grand productions, like Koyaanisqatsi – has certainly created a beautiful document of the United States. His aerial camera zooms through canyons and valleys, along the Continental Divide and Mount Rainier. Several interludes are staged performances (by a dance troupe who trips delicately along the face of a cliff wall, by a salsa-dancing family from Los Angeles), and they are handsome and smoothly accomplished. But to what end? Don’t think for a minute that this is nonpartisan feel-good entertainment for the ages. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the film’s approach: highlighting the dreams and achievements of various American citizens in inspirational vignettes no longer than a television commercial. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about the American spirit, about our best selves. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating our dignity, our range of artistic expression, our individualism. Yet Heart & Soul doesn’t stop there. It slyly undermines calls for social reform in just about every conceivable area of life. Because its subjects have grit and sand, they don’t need feminism, civil rights, advocacy for the disabled and the mentally ill. They don’t need health care reform. They don’t need environmentalism – not when a dedicated group of Tlingit tribespeople waxes poetic on the joys of re-releasing eagles into the wild. There’s no reason to worry about urban poverty, not when the pastor of the Glide Memorial Methodist Church, a radically inclusive congregation in San Francisco, accepts you as you are – homeless, heroin-addicted, jobless. There’s no reason to worry about the rural poor, who are stoical small farmers and weavers. Any one of these stories is fine fodder for a more thorough examination, perhaps even its own documentary. But the filmmakers aren’t interested in the systems of our society, its institutions, its government – only in little digestible glimpses of superstars who make everyone feel good by proxy. And some of these situations are pretty scary upon reflection. The members of Waltham, a straight-up rock band from the eponymous Massachusetts city, work dead-end day jobs with cavalier glee while they wait to make it big. "Working at a car wash is the best lifestyle," one grins. "It’s everything I went to college for." Will underemployment feel so good in 10 years? With a family to support? Elsewhere the film romanticizes pyromania as harmlessly eccentric, and an aerobatic pilot likes that she has to be "a little bit better than the guys to prove yourself." While happy vintner Ed Holt, who seems to be a nice enough guy, shows off his grapes, the cameras assiduously avoid capturing the migrant workers in chemical masks actually picking them. No wonder America’s Heart & Soul is endorsed by the conservative pressure group MoveAmericaForward.oddrg. Still, the real shame in the storytelling is that the people in this film are interesting and inspiring enough to warrant a real film about them.