Soul Doubt

Louis Schwartzberg aims for America's Heart, but mostly sticks to the surface.

America's Heart & Soul
America's Heart & Soul strives to paint a - portrait of a nation through snapshots of individuals.
America's Heart & Soul strives to paint a portrait of a nation through snapshots of individuals.
America's Heart & Soul, the debut feature from commercial director Louis Schwartzberg, is being depicted in some quarters as the antidote to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, mostly because it's a documentary about the U.S.A. being released around the same time. For more simplistic minds that equate anti-Bush sentiment with hatred of America, this analogy may be apt. Schwartzberg's film, made up of a series of vignettes spotlighting hard-working and idiosyncratic people across the land, aspires to glorify the American dream.

But to call it a conservative or Republican film would be inaccurate: For one thing, it celebrates (gasp!) multiculturalism and diversity. For another, the closest it ever comes to expressing a political viewpoint is when a metal sculptor advocates more art education in schools, or when a minister at a San Francisco church says that he's more concerned with the here-and-now than with heaven or hell. Jerry Falwell might raise an eyebrow.

To imply that the film has any kind of worldview beyond a vague "America is nice" sentiment is to give Schwartzberg too much credit. The director is best known for having amassed the largest library of stock footage in the country; little surprise, then, that America's Heart & Soul could just as easily be called Stock Footage: The Movie. Helicopter shots, time-lapse images of clouds moving and grass growing, aerial views of cityscapes . . . all these things not only kick off the movie, they're the segues for damn near every scene.

With a small crew, Schwartzberg traveled the country to interview people for the film. Some 24 of them have been spotlighted, with many others appearing in brief shots. For an 86-minute movie, that's not a lot of time to focus on each one, especially when you subtract all the helicopter shots from the running time. As a result, each person is more or less boiled down to one characteristic. There's the cowboy who doesn't drink, the bike messenger who goes in and out of traffic insanely fast, the ex-convict who became a boxer, the Cajun musician who cooks, the dairy farmer who likes raising his son, the ice-climber who's blind, the Tlingit Indian who protects eagles, Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's, and many more. Intrigued by any of those descriptions? Well, too bad, because you don't learn anything else about them. There's no time.

Schwartzberg's such a natural at getting slick-looking images that he practically sabotages any attempt to give the movie a realistic feel. Yes, these are real people, and their stories ring true, but the director has made them look like extras in a political campaign commercial (one that could be used by either major party, natch).

The director has said of aerobatic flier Patty Wagstaff, "I've thought for a long time that I'd like to make a movie with Patty, and when this film came up, it seemed right." That's not a bad impulse; he should have made a movie about Patty, or Ben Cohen, or any of the other individuals in America's Heart & Soul, rather than consigning them to minor sound bites in a patchwork concoction.

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