- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

The Bush administration should slap Arabic subtitles on “America’s Heart and Soul” and propaganda-bomb the Middle East with this puppy, a brisk, black-dot tour of the land of the free and all its many-colored splendors.

“Why do they hate us?” was, and remains, a central question of our current troubles. One will come away from this documentary, a Fourth of July celebration from our friends at Disney, even more perplexed.

Director Louis Schwartzberg, a guy who likes to take big, broad, panoramic pictures of America’s flyover country, goes from sea to shining sea in search of the odd, the old, the brave, the redeeming, the inspiring.

He comes away with about 20 vignettes of ordinary Americans — plus a couple you may have heard of before — doing such ordinary things as dairy farming and such not-so-ordinary things as cliffside dancing, scrap-metal sculpture, baroque car ornamentation and “explosive art.”

The “last cowboy” of scenic Telluride, Colo., rides his horse straight into a main-street bar, and the patrons don’t give it a second thought. An Appalachian woman meticulously weaves rugs and says, “I’ve been broke many times, but I’ve never been poor.”

A family cooks gumbo and plays Cajun music in deep Louisiana. Men fight oil-rig fires in Texas and mill steel in West Virginia. A bike courier in Manhattan risks life and limb to deliver packages on time.

The cumulative prompting of the movie is, “Is this a great country, or what?”

Of course this is a great country, and before cynics accuse Mr. Schwartzberg of making an unthoughtful, up-from-your-bootstraps whitewash job, notice the presence here of the Vermonter Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame.

Mr. Cohen samples new flavors — and leaves a drip or two on his old hippie beard — and expounds kindly on how he’s motivated to excellence, not riches.

Over in San Francisco, a city with one of the most serious homeless problems in the country, a black minister runs an all-inclusive liberal church and encourages his flock to focus not on the hereafter but on the here and now.

The point is, there’s a spirit of ecumenical populism to “America’s Heart and Soul,” and the movie is just as effective for what it doesn’t show.

Mr. Schwartzberg is not just some national PR flack; ever so gently, he conveys serious things about his country. It may seem trite to state it outright — because the movie says it so much better by omission — but “heart” and “soul” here are synonymous with backbone, strength and moral fiber. America’s heart-and-soul stuff isn’t in Hollywood or on Wall Street; it’s on the margins of cities, in rural towns and in mountain valleys.

Mr. Schwartzberg really lays it on thick and gooey toward the end, with a tear-jerker piece on a pair of Boston marathon runners — a father and his disabled son. The director also follows Erik Weihenmayer up a slope of ice. Mr. Weihenmayer is blind.

This is the easiest, glossiest way to write a paean to America.

But if you don’t tear up at least a little, you should move to France.

**1/2

TITLE: “America’s Heart and Soul”

RATING: PG (Mild thematic elements)

CREDITS: Produced, directed and photographed by Louis Schwartzberg.

RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes.

WEB SITE: http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/heartandsoul/flash.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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