'America's Heart': Red, White & True Blue

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2004

If "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the movie Disney doesn't want you to see -- or at least the movie it doesn't want to be responsible for you seeing -- then "America's Heart & Soul" is the movie it really really wants you to see.

And why not? "America's Heart & Soul" is an unapologetically Capraesque flag-waver, as ardent in its unconditional love of country as Michael Moore is in his dissent. Perhaps the most eloquent testimonial to the tensions that animate the American idea is the fact that these two movies can be seen in theaters on the Fourth of July. And perhaps the best way to celebrate Independence Day is to see -- and argue about -- both.

On the surface, there's very little to argue about in "America's Heart & Soul." In this gorgeously photographed, swiftly moving travelogue, director Louis Schwartzberg seems literally to fly over the vast expanse of the United States, swooping down now and then to profile citizens who embody the country's devotion to individualism, self-expression and old-fashioned bootstrapping. In dozens of sequences that last only a few minutes, Schwartzberg creates brief but vivid portraits of a cowboy in Colorado, a rug weaver in Appalachia, a dairy farmer in Vermont, a trombone prodigy in Louisiana and an acrobatic flier who specializes in vertiginous loop-de-loops over the Florida coast. We meet a Methodist pastor in San Francisco, an oil well firefighter in Texas, an Olympic boxer in Chicago and a marathon runner with cerebral palsy. Oh, and a junk-metal sculptor in Washington State, a blind mountain climber and a man in Colorado who throws flaming bowling balls into towers of TV sets.

Such are the heroes, oddballs and quintessentially American originals who populate "America's Heart & Soul," and even when they come in groups their message is clear: The American Dream is about the freedom of each citizen to pursue it, not the efforts of many to secure their rights within it. In this film, government is the implicit and explicit enemy. (It might be interesting to hear how Schwartzberg's African American and disabled subjects feel about such governmental creations as the Civil Rights and Americans With Disabilities acts, but that's for another movie.) Just to drive the point home, the filmmaker punctuates "America's Heart & Soul" with aphorisms extolling the virtues of freedom, as well as soaring shots of eagles on the wing and fireworks going off behind the Statue of Liberty.

Even in the face of such overkill, viewers won't want to turn up their noses entirely at "America's Heart & Soul." Schwartzberg's breathtaking footage of the Bandaloop Cliff Dancers (whose members use spectacular seaside cliffs as their stage), his camera surfing through Manhattan on a messenger's bike, his iconic portraits of both everyday and extraordinary Americans, are often too stirring for even the most hardened cynic to dismiss. If some of the more painful contradictions of American life aren't addressed in what is otherwise a slick infomercial for the country at its most idealized, "America's Heart & Soul" still harbors some indelibly arresting images and characters whose stories, even at their most superficial, manage to be authentically inspiring.

America's Heart & Soul (84 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company