Actor Jared Leto‘s directorial debut, playing the Tribeca Film Festival, is spun from constructive intentions, but I had a hard time buying into its purported positivity. Leto posited that he hoped this documentary, A Day in the Life of America, would be seen as a time capsule years later. I suspect that decades later–hopefully when the nation is recovering from the long-term damage of the Trump administration–I would still see this film with stirring stories sullied by its overall skewered positivity.
The conceit of capturing a chorus of voices and viewpoints around America lends itself to an earnest tapestry of the American experience. Deploying 92 camera crews around all 50 states of America (and Puerto Rico) on July 4th, 2017, Leto’s team captures the day-in-the-life of individuals and communities gearing up for Independence Day, all over the course of 24 hours. Inevitably, there are nerving intervals of President Donald Trump leading the Independence Day celebration and showboating patriotism in the name of nationalism.
The film dives into a melting pot of faces, voices, and traditions across the United States. It accosts us through vignettes of love, hate, bliss, trepidation, community, isolation, celebration, sorrow, and multitudes. The movie buoyantly sails through vistas and characters, such as a Wisconsin truck driver, a roller-skating gay Texas couple, a Californian porn star, and many more.
Samuel Nalband’s editing threads the narrative beads to draw tragic juxtapositions. It compels affection for the subjects–those that don’t lean toward bigotry–that come and go in the short time they speak. There’s a poignant parallel: a man who survived a brain tumor to walk the earth, followed by the testimony of a former bodybuilder dying of cancer. Those left out of prosperity bear a great sorrow, such as an incarcerated man who divulges that he is locked out of the Independence Day celebration. Loud and clear, despite its touted “apolitical” aims, it never ignores that politics are ingrained deeply into their subjects’ lives, distressing those from marginalized communities.
There are some shadowy corners. I cringed when it cut to a pair of rednecks, clutching firearms, debating aloud whether prayer is allowed in school anymore. Interviews include family units of white supremacist within their domestic spaces in North Carolina. The camera absorbs the disturbing mundanity as they deride diversity and sew their Ku Klux Klan hoods to prepare for the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, an event that would have historical consequences. Their casual callousness is counterpointed by a decisive cut to the ceremonial dancing of Native Americans from South Dakota. They remind the audience that they exist and are reaping the ill-effects of colonization that plagued their former and current generations. But while the movie exhibits the depraved corners to a cautionary extent, there is an argument to be made that it frames those inhabiting bigoted corners as worth empathizing with–and yes, despite all the well laced-in counterpoints spoken by the communities most vulnerable to white supremacy.
The project is a valued dimensional experiment that left me mourning for the stories that could not be included in the 78-minute final product (about only half the 50 states made it in and Puerto Rico is not to be seen). It might have an audience searching for consolation in the Trump era, but the doc didn’t win me over on the whole. As someone who wants to be optimistic but fatigued by the national situation, its chipper conclusion capped off with the image of birth left me cold. It wants to be an antidote, a bitter-tasting antidote with alleviative properties, but it’s not an antidote for me and more pessimistic viewers. Even when it’s beseeching its audience to not turn a blind eye to the terrors of the current events, it seems to shrug off the shadows by the end. It exhibits the fissures of the American experiment and the importance of fighting injustice yet prioritizes the feeling of optimism over urgent effort. For all the discomforting territory it covers, A Day in the Life of America is geared for those who want to be comfy with today. There are many like me who don’t feel the fireworks.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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