To give credit where credit is due, America's Heart and Soul is a lot better than I expected from my first impression of it. It's really a compilation of various "slices of life" in the US that tries to pin down a modern sort of pioneer spirit. The result is celebratory in tone, but not dripping in the hyper-patriotic goody-goodyness that seems to be promised by the title (Walt Disney Presents, no less) and the cover art, with its US-flag backdrop and photo inserts that include another US flag and the Statue of Liberty too.
The opening sequence of America's Heart and Soul is similarly unpromising, as it's a montage of faces and scenes that are clearly (all too clearly) intended to evoke a sense of the rich and varied lives of people in the US. The emotional buttons are being pushed a little too obviously, the sentiment laid on a bit too thick. Fortunately, once the program moves into its actual content, it takes a somewhat fresher approach.
The film is made up of many short segments focusing on a particular person who, in some unspecified way, exemplifies some aspect of US national spirit, or culture, or ideals (it's rather hard to be sure what the connecting thread is). The first portion of the film focuses on individuals who live lives that are much more connected to the landscape and the country's small-artisan roots than the majority of viewers: for instance, we get to see a rancher, a Vermont farmer, a hat maker, and a chair maker. These are people whose lives seem fulfilling, rich, and well-balanced... which makes it all the more ironic that their lifestyles (and livelihoods) are threatened by the unthinking forces of mass culture in the US, paving over farms for more parking lots and McMansion housing lots, and shopping for cheap plastic trinkets at Wal-Mart instead of buying lasting products closer to home. But that's a subtext that I thought out on my own, as the film doesn't explore these contradictions at all, instead simply moving gradually onward to small-town and urban areas to find more tales of courage, perseverance, and success. Some of the stories here focus on people's professions, like the bike messenger, while others look at their hobbies or passions, like the blind mountain climber.
There's a nod to the fact that life's not all roses in the US. One segment focuses on an Olympic boxer who had a rough youth, reformed himself in prison, and now aims to help other young people escape the dangers of the street. Another segment touches on the difficult lives of steel workers in a town where the industry is fading. For the most part, though, the focus is entirely on stories of success. It's understandable – clearly this film is intended to be upbeat and celebratory – but the lack of some slightly deeper engagement with the lives and troubles of the interviewees makes the film a bit shallow.
The main flaw of America's Heart and Soul, in the end, is that it's unclear what the point of the whole exercise is. Watching the film is like flipping through a cousin's photo album: lots of faces and snapshots of interesting moments, but no sense of the narrative behind the pictures. The film runs 88 minutes, but it could have run less, or more; there's no structure to speak of, and no sense that the film is leading up to anything, or drawing us into thinking about anything. It's just... there.
Viewers have the choice of two options: the original widescreen version (1.85:1, and anamorphically enhanced) or an open-matte 1.33:1 version. Since the widescreen option has the director's intended framing for theatrical exhibition, it does look better overall than the 1.33:1 version, and I'd certainly suggest it as the best option. But since the 1.33:1 version is open matte and does not cut off any of the image, there's really nothing terrible about viewing it this way either.
The image quality is decent, a notch above average. Colors are very bright and vibrant, perhaps a little too much so; some skin tones look a bit ruddier than normal. The image is fairly clean and in good shape, but there's definitely edge enhancement, and a moderate amount of grain shows up in many scenes, resulting in an overall rather soft look.
The soundtrack for this film is a Dolby 5.1, but it might as well be a 2.0 track given its limited use of the surround channels. The sound is generally clean, though dialogue is sometimes a bit flat-sounding, and the music sounds fine.
We get a nine-minute making-of featurette called "In Search of America's Heart and Soul"; it's rather standard segment that does offer some interesting tidbits of information about the director. For viewers who enjoyed the film's soundtrack, there are four extended musical performances included, and lastly there's a full-length audio commentary on the film by director/producer Louis Schwartzburg.
America's Heart and Soul is a fluffy feel-good film about the people who live in the US and in some way characterize the "American Dream." Although it's nonfiction, it's actually hard to call it a documentary, since it doesn't really seem to have much of a point; it's more like an animated photo album with an upbeat theme. On the bright side, it's not as sentimental as I expected from the packaging, and the cinematography is good. Rent it.