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America's Heart & Soul: All heart, little soul

Culture | This documentary now in theaters aims at making Americans feel good about their country

Issue: "Kerry picks Edwards as VP," July 17, 2004

While Fahrenheit 9/11 aims at making Americans feel ashamed, another documentary now in theaters aims at making Americans feel good about their country. Disney refused to distribute Michael Moore's propaganda film and has instead given us America's Heart & Soul (rated PG).

This documentary samples the wide range of American people (cowboys, Cajuns, black gospel singers, oil-well fire fighters, steel workers, Inuit Alaskans, a Jewish klezmer player, New Orleans jazzmen, Latino salsa dancers) and places (New York City, the Colorado mountains, California wine country, Appalachia).

It gives attention to eccentrics (a man who likes to blow things up; those who decorate their automobiles with kitschy "car art") and unusual occupations (cliff dancers; a stunt pilot; Ben & Jerry). The best segments give us portraits of genuine characters with moving stories: an ex-con who became an Olympic boxer and who now works with children; a blind mountain climber; a young man with cerebral palsy who enters wheelchair marathons pushed by his father.

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"It's the wonderful diversity of this country that makes this place so great," says a Cajun accordion player as he makes gumbo. But what is distinctly American that binds all of these differences into a union? We see America's heart, the warm-and-fuzzy emotionalism. But what is its soul?

England has eccentrics; Australians love freedom; Poles are religious; India is multicultural. What is the heart and soul of America, as such? We might see those better by means of contrast -- how the American heart is different from that of Europe, the Middle East, India, Japan; how the American soul is different from that of the socialist regimes and welfare states, the dictatorships and the Islamic theocracies.

This movie could use some conflict. It is all sweetness, light, and harmony, even though we know today that our country is bitterly divided. There can be no drama without conflict, and even a documentary sometimes needs to be dramatic, as evident in Michael Moore's film, which has plenty of conflict.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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