Louis Schwartzberg’s America is a place where nobody watches TV, nobody swears, criminals are rehabilitated, and everyone’s life has meaning, purpose, and beauty. It’s an America I’d love to be a part of, if they’d have me.
A Coffee-Table Book
PG for mild thematic elements, whatever that means
America’s Heart and Soul is not just a documentary but an “uplifting documentary,” according to the press notes. Perhaps Disney’s marketers hope that video stores will be forced to print new signs for their shelves. A better name for this new genre would be “coffee table book,” with nothing but gorgeous photography and brief captions that nobody reads.
The movie introduces us to two dozen colorful characters. Some of them make photogenic art, like the junk sculptor, or the cliff dancers who reduce gravity by turning it on its side. Some of them work in photogenic surroundings like the Telluride cowboy or the Pennsylvania steel workers. Still others have enough color in their personality to stand alone like the explosives nut from Creede, Colorado, the heavy metal band with no illusions about their blue-collar day jobs, or the NYC bike messenger who likes to think of himself as a sort of real-world Spider-Man.
Between these large segments are tiny little scenes of the b-list subjects, like the hat-maker, or Ben of Ben & Jerry’s fame. Of even smaller grain are the music-video montages that cram the entire country into 90-second song snippets.
Mixed in with the great-looking photographic sequences are Hallmark captions that try to add some shape and meaning to the pictures: “Freedom lives in the soul and keeps passion alive” and “The future belongs to those who are free to believe in their dreams”.
The Teflon Movie
Thankfully, America’s Heart and Soul is an apolitical movie. Nobody likes to be told that their point of view is un-American, so the movie is positive, generic, and inoffensive. The movie is also very broad, which acts as extra coat of Teflon — if you don’t like one segment, just wait 90 seconds and soon you’re watching something else.
The third coat of anti-stick spray comes from the film’s association with America and patriotism, its title being the most obvious of them. The sprinkled-in quotes about freedom and images of flags painted on barns, photographed in fading golden sunlight, set up the movie to stand as a placeholder for all that is good in America. Dislike the movie, dislike America, it dares audiences.
But of course this slippery perfection is exactly what’s wrong with America’s Heart and Soul. Schwartzberg’s America is a land without dissent or ugliness, without politics, pollution, or poverty. There are no computer nerds, no bean-counters, no couch potatoes, and no overweight, middle-aged film critics (we’re not interesting enough visually).
Of course one wouldn’t make an “inspirational” documentary that showed the negative, the ugly, or the sedentary, particularly with a Fourth-of-July release date. But when movies are so willfully naive, so blindly positive, critics are justified in using words like “cloying,” “syrupy,” “saccharine,” and “manipulative.”
Love It or Leave It
But to criticize America’s Heart and Soul for being too pretty, positive and patriotic is to miss the point entirely. It’s a coffee-table book, not a newspaper or an atlas. It’s supposed to be gorgeous and uplifting, not informative or objective. I won’t say it’s the best way to spend your time at the movies, but I can’t deny that America’s Heart and Soul succeeds in what it sets out to do.