It’s no wonder that the House of Mouse gave the green light to America’s Heart & Soul, the new documentary by Louis Schwartzberg. The Disney flick is a collection of easy-to-swallow stories of hardworking, plucky Americans wrapped in a shiny, happy, postcard-perfect package.
The film comes, of course, on the heels of Disney’s refusal to let Miramax distribute another documentary: Michael Moore’s bitter little anti-war, anti-Bush pill, Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore is confrontational and controversial, but at least his films are provocative and make an attempt to tell the truth, something Disney doesn’t dive for with this “documentary.”
Schwartzberg’s Heart & Soul is an ode to America with no teeth, no critical lens and, ultimately, no drama.
Schwartzberg, whose background includes directing television commercials, packages his tales of everyday Joes with crisp, scenic images. The camera soars above amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, fruited plains. You get the picture. The only thing missing is animated robot people bobbing up and down and singing, “It’s a small world, after all.”
Schwartzberg drops down on an eclectic bunch of “ordinary Americans,” but swoops away before we can discover anything meaningful.
In one vignette, for example, we meet Roudy Roudebush, a quirky Colorado cowboy with Old West charm. We get a couple minutes of Roudy riding high on the range. He mentions for a second that he’s a recovering alcoholic, but Schwartzberg drops the subject immediately. Did the booze bring Roudy years of pain, grief and suffering? We can only guess, because Roudy is quickly back on his horse trotting through the magnificent Colorado landscape.
The rest of the movie carries the same tone. If there’s any negativity, it’s brief and likely tempered with musings on the virtues of hard work. A woman in Appalachia brushes off talk of poverty and points to her farmer husband plowing his field, like he does every day. West Virginia steel workers fear losing their jobs overseas, but they work hard in the mill. (Notably missing from all this are the voices of politicians. But then again, the theme is hard work.)
The half-drawn picture of America is flawed, as much as Schwartzberg tries to gloss it over. A California winemaker delivers a speech about how hard he’s worked his whole life and marvels at “God’s miracles” around him. As the camera floats above his golden vineyard, it stops, for just a second, on the faces of Latino workers in the fields. Then it quickly cuts away. Their stories are untold.
Schwartzberg spreads his material too thin. All of his vignettes have potential to be inspiring or hilarious. He gives us an oddball artist who blows up televisions with bowling balls and a blind mountain climber who scales the world’s tallest peaks. But to show a blind guy at the top of Mount Everest without telling us much about the sweat, tears and guts it took to get there doesn’t do justice to the story.
As a result, America’s Heart & Soul is a just a string of happy endings that smack of saccharin — fake sugar that makes you sick. While that may work for a day at Disneyland, it makes for a dull hour and a half at a cinema.
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