America's Heart and Soul is as surprisingly engaging as Fahrenheit 9/11 is unsurprisingly frustrating. In fact, the two films made for a rather bizarre 24 hours of movie screening; imagine the jarring effect of watching this year's most cynical portrait of America followed by watching the most sentimental. What do you watch for the third night? A double feature of Oliver Stone's Nixon and John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln?
As flawed as both of these movies are, they unintentionally work together in showing just how diverse this country truly is -- certainly its filmmakers. Passion, however directed, can produce works that can tug at or break your heart. If they were painters, Heart and Soul's Louis Schwartzberg might play Norman Rockwell to Michael Moore's Edward Hopper -- both enthralled with their country, with one hopelessly in love and the other deeply conflicted. The one thing they have in common beyond the country they're profiling, fittingly enough, is also their point of departure: America's Heart and Soul is distributed by Disney, while Fahrenheit 9/11 was dropped by Disney.
But while America's Heart and Soul is a series of postcards from points across the country, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a series of postcards about the country, and where it's headed. Better still, both Schwartzberg and Moore convey a deep humanism in talking to the people who drive this country.
Moore, by his standards, has made his most ambitious, nuanced work -- as polemic as previous works such as the Academy Award-winning Bowling for Columbine, but even more humanistic and (if you can believe it) not nearly as self-absorbed. (No, really.) I could spend an entire column going over the shopping list of typical Moore flaws -- shoddy research, cheap and personal shots at his favorite target, George W. Bush, and a lack of narrative focus.
So we get a half-assed attempt to create a lethal connection between the Bushes and the Saudis (including the bin Laden family) -- House of Bush, House of Saud, the book on that subject, has been cited for flawed or inadequate reporting -- images of the Bush administration cast as members of Bonanza, and lots of Dubya looking like, well, Dubya. But Moore also has moments of sheer brilliance and surprising subtlety, like refusing to show the World Trade Center but instead focusing on the faces of grief-stricken New Yorkers. (It sends chills even as I write this.) Or fighting the temptation to insert himself into every scenario. His decision to show himself comforting a black school official in Bowling for Columbine was unforgivable; here, he limits his on-camera appearances to familiar tricks such as driving around in an ice-cream truck reading the Patriot Act to the many (all?) members of Congress who failed to read it.
Indeed, Moore has learned his lesson: The people are what matter. He unspools the story of Lila Lipscomb, a mother of two military veterans serving in Iraq, as true a believer in the American Dream as you'll find, until reality hits. There are no camera-mugging hugs here, just an encouraging interview with Lipscomb as she undergoes her sad metamorphosis, ending up in front of the White House where she confronts her grief-challenged patriotism.
And there are others, including a broad spectrum of servicemen, both at home and abroad, and not all happy campers.
Schwartzberg is no less obvious in his own soul-searching, and at first glance America's Heart and Soul could not be more tedious. The worst of the early offenders, sadly, is Louisiana's Marc Savoy, who along with wife Ann and others seem forced to play Cajun music in a circle outside their home in Eunice. He even drags out the unfortunate "gumbo" metaphor and later speaks in clichés about our nation's diversity. The more local reference comes minutes later with trumpeter James Andrews and younger brother Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews performing in what is obviously a staged second line.
But as is so often the case in thinking about the vastness and depth of the country, things start to add up with Heart and Soul. The more people you meet, the more you realize what a great country it is, indeed. There's Texan Ace Barnes, who went from oil-rig worker to fire fighter after an explosion burned most of his face. Or Boston Marathoners Rick and Dick Hoyt, who wouldn't be that big a deal if it weren't for the fact that Dick does all the running while pushing son Rick, who suffers from cerebral palsy, along in a makeshift cart.
For all their scope, both Fahrenheit 9/11 and America's Heart and Soul are about the dignity of the American individual. Whether portraying a grieving mother's doubts about her country or the heroism of a pair of long-distance runners, both movies are at their best when they show the power of our people.
- Lila Lipscomb, mother of two military veterans, discusses her love of country in Michael Moore's latest documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11.