America’s Heart and Soul

As a kind of cowboy of stock footage, filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg has corralled footage from his travels across America into the new pseudo-documentary, “America’s Heart and Soul.” Less of an investigative piece on what makes the nation tick and more of an unabashed patriotic assemblage of the camera hogs that make up a good portion of the population, “Soul” is an earnest, insanely jingoistic production, but hopelessly vague with its subject matter.

Schwartzberg has taken his cameras all over the country, meeting all sorts of different citizens who take great joy in living in America. In Chicago, we encounter a young Olympic boxer trying to give back to his economically depressed community through mentorship; Florida brings us a woman who performs acrobatic stunts with her airplane. In the thin mountain air of Creede, Colorado, Paul Stone demonstrates how he kills time by shooting objects (including ham) with his homemade cannon. Heading to Vermont, Schwartzberg meets up with a dairy farmer who acts in his free time (“Mystery Science Theater 3000” fans might recognize him as corporate stooge J.K., the villain from “Time Chasers”). In New York, we find a bike messenger who knows his route like the back of his hand. And in Virginia, steel workers fret over the loss of their livelihood to outsourcing, eventually taking matters into their own hands to protect themselves. In all, there are 20 subjects that Schwartzberg showcases.

Now 20 subjects is a lot of ground to cover for any documentary, but Schwartzberg only gives himself 85 minutes to work with, making the film more a series of snapshots than anything close to the true examination of experience. The people Schwartzberg met but can’t fit into the film are squeezed in through occasional montages, representing the diverse population of America and packing the film even tighter with information that it cannot skillfully process. “Soul” is hobbled greatly by this approach, marginalizing these lives into 3-minute bites, inadvertently making half of these people look insane rather than enlightened.

“Soul” isn’t shy about wearing its patriotic message on its sleeve, even opening with an extended John Mellencamp song and constantly reminding the audience how kick-ass a place America is. We get it. But Schwartzberg isn’t quite convinced his audience grasps that notion and includes multiple shots of bald eagles soaring through the air and purple-mountain ranges to make his point about liberty; even climaxing the film with a fireworks display over the Statue of Liberty. It’s all a bit too much to swallow.

Rating: C
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