‘Citizen U.S.A.’ is a melting pot that melts the American heart
By Hank Stuever,
If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching someone become an American citizen, then do treat yourself to Alexandra Pelosi’s “Citizen U.S.A.,” an inspiring, one-hour travelogue airing on HBO Monday night, in which the inquisitive filmmaker (and daughter of the California congresswoman) visits a swearing-in ceremony in each state. In a mere 53 minutes.
Pelosi’s first film, “Journeys With George,” followed George W. Bush on the 2000 presidential campaign trail, and it is remembered more for its flirty larkiness than for being an incisive portrait of Bush. Her later films have been about subjects as diverse as the lives of children of families who live in motels across the street from Disneyland to the post-scandal travails of fallen evangelist Ted Haggard.
What’s emerged in her work is a breezy, on-the-go digital camera style that suits both Pelosi and the tone of the times. She’s a fun road companion. Her sensibility — what she chooses to film, the people she’s drawn to, the stories she is touched by, her willingness to ask questions — lends her projects a nice mix of hipness and compassion, without seeming like part of an ironic comedy show. She likes to give everyone a fair shake, and in these times, what more can you ask?
Beyond its breakneck speed and miles logged, “Citizen U.S.A.” couldn’t be more easy or straightforward: From tiny ceremonies in county courthouses to massive arena-sized gatherings in big cities, Pelosi presents a surprising collage of that essential moment when people who’ve immigrated to the United States become official Americans. As newly minted citizens, these folks are the best possible advertising for a nation at war, in financial trouble and griped out. With their stories of hard work, epic journey and appreciation for the small things (Customer service! Privacy! Being able to choose the color of your new car!), they’ll give you hope in this 235-year experiment we’ve got going here.
Pelosi began her project when her Dutch-born husband, Michiel Vos, decided to become an American after the birth of the couple’s children. There’s nothing more to it than that — having been moved by Michiel’s ceremony, Pelosi just runs with the idea.
What do we learn? Not much, besides how easy it is to take your citizenship for granted. Pelosi’s new Americans are so diverse and so ebullient that the rest takes care of itself; only passing references are made to current immigration debates, particularly when Pelosi visits Arizona and there’s a mob outside the building counter-protesting the state’s recently harsh-ified immigration laws.
But “Citizen U.S.A.” is without agenda, open to all. What fascinated me (and obviously Pelosi) was the wide and occasionally bizarre variety of amateur entertainment that precedes a swearing-in ceremony: It’s not just schoolchildren singing, it’s every kind of act — choirs of elderly patriots, storytellers, a woman doing a song and an audience-participation dance involving red, white and blue paper plates . . . .
Another revelation: Apart from the occasional debate over whether the United States needs to replace its national anthem with something more singable than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one song was apparently long ago chosen for that task by the people in charge of swearing-in ceremonies. It is, of course, Lee Greenwood’s sap-tastic 1984 ballad “God Bless the U.S.A.” Love it or leave it, that song is here to stay.
(one hour) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.