America's Heart & Soul

  • 2004
  • 1 HR 28 MIN
  • PG

Had Louis Schwartzberg's relentlessly sunny profile of various inspirational Americans not been released by Disney immediately after Michael Moore's considerably less upbeat FAHRENHEIT 9/11, which the company declined to distribute, it would seem simply an up-with-people exercise in cheerful populism. But the timing lends the film a political cast that Schwartzberg...read more

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Reviewed by Ethan Alter
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Had Louis Schwartzberg's relentlessly sunny profile of various inspirational Americans not been released by Disney immediately after Michael Moore's considerably less upbeat FAHRENHEIT 9/11, which the company declined to distribute, it would seem simply an up-with-people exercise in cheerful populism. But the timing lends the film a political cast that Schwartzberg himself does his best to avoid. At its heart, his movie is an innocent salute to everyday Americans and their diverse lives, less jingoistic advertisement than bland spirit-uplifter a la films like TO FLY! (1976), full of pretty pictures and soaring music, but shy on substance. Schwartzberg's subjects include an Appalachian rug weaver, a dairy farmer, a gospel singer, a Native American tribal elder, two brothers who dream of taking their rock 'n' roll band to the big time and Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream fame. The director devotes three to four minutes to each story, which ensures that the truly interesting people instantly stand out from the rest. The blind mountain-climber's story is terrific, as is that of the father who runs the Boston Marathon every year with his quadriplegic son. One of the oddest — and most entertaining — segments is devoted to an "explosive artist" who spends his days firing a homemade cannon at an assortment of objects. Mixed in with these interviews are numerous stock images of Americana: bustling cities, wide-open landscapes and, of course, bald eagles. It's all beautifully photographed and Schwartzberg tries to capture the country's diversity despite notable omissions, as there always will be in any movie that attempts to "define" America. All of Schwartzberg's subjects are conspicuously working-to-middle class — poverty is alluded to but rarely glimpsed — and the majority live in rural settings or small towns. City people, most notably a New York bike messenger and a San Francisco preacher, are few and far between. And while Schwartzberg carefully includes several African-American faces, there's only one Latino family (who are also the film's only new immigrants) and a lone Asian-American woman. Perhaps the most startling omission is anyone from the Middle East or Southeast Asia, excepting a quick shot of an Indian taxi driver in the New York segment. Intentionally or not, the absence of a single Arab face in a movie meant to reflect contemporary America speaks volumes.

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