Well, folks, it's a Presidential election year here in the good ol' U.S.A., which means of course we have candidates, pundits and various members of the populace at large reminding us virtually minute by minute of the chasms that separate us. This early 21st century Hallmark series may be about the best antidote to that rampant cynicism, as it covers the vast territories, both literally (as in geography) and figuratively (as in lifestyle) that comprise the United States of America.
Producer/director Louis Schwartzberg has been called the "anti-Michael Moore" by some wags, and that appellation is actually apt in more ways than one. While America is a feel-good, uplifting compendium of stories about everyday folk (some of whom have accomplished great things despite formidable odds), and lacks Moore's sometimes over the top rabid ideologies and dogmatism, it also lacks Moore's solid point of view. While America advertises itself as telling the U.S.A.'s story "one person at a time," frequently those stories don't really add up to much, despite the always pleasant ambience of any given personal history being depicted.
The series relies heavily on Schwartberg's 30 year archiving of stock footage (he is purportedly the single largest holder of archival and stock footage in the U.S.), interspersed with the new footage of specific individuals he shot for this series. The stories covered are always interesting (if sometimes routine and certainly nothing approaching profound), with such literal "Hallmark moments" as a blind mountainclimber and a father who runs in marathons pushing his disabled son in a wheelchair as standouts. But there are so many stories here, everything from furniture makers in Appalachia, to Eskimos up north, to Cajun musicians, to a New York bicycle messenger (with some now poignant shots of the Twin Towers) that the series, while perhaps lacking a political point of view (and that's probably a good thing), makes its point tangentially by simply pointing out the amazing diversity that resides in the United States.
As he discusses in one of the extras, Schwartzberg shot this series on 35mm film, so it certainly has a smoother and more detailed image than standard television fare. Unfortunately it's in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, all the more disappointing since so much of Schwartzberg's stock footage of the beautiful countryside and cityscapes of the United States is so dramatically and forcefully presented in the series.
A nice stereo soundtrack suffices quite well, with no serious separation issues to speak of--the bulk of the series is people talking, but the frequent use of music (played live and as underscore) is always well-reproduced with good balance and fidelity.
An entire disc of extras has some nice additional features, including an extra episode that was never broadcast, an interview with Schwartzberg where he talks about the genesis and filming of the project, follow-up interviews with both the blind mountainclimber and father/son marathon team, another featurette specifically tied to Schwartzberg's stock footage, a "Koyanniqatsi"-esque featurette called "L.A. Jam," featuring time-lapse photography of various Los Angeles locales, and the "America!" series trailer.
This 4 disc set may present nothing particularly thought-provoking, but it features such a wealth of perfect "common folk" stories interspersed with gorgeous vistas spread all across the country that it certainly is worth a look. It won't offend, as some of Moore's work will, but it also won't challenge, as Moore's films frequently do. It does provide an excellent cross-section of the United States circa 2000. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet