If an independent film made on the cheap during the mid-'90s by two industry dropouts doesn't stoke yawns of disinterest, knowing it's a road-trip documentary in search of *A*M*E*R*I*C*A* only sweetens the probability that it's a dated cultural artifact on par with a Vaughn Meader album. The great (and pleasant) surprise of Anthem is how satisfying a documentary it is and how the observations about America's direction in the new century are clairvoyant rather than stale.
Before they were the writer/director of A Love Song for Bobby Long and the executive producer for The Departed, respectively, Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn were 20-somethings who did what all 20-somethings banter about ' taking a drive across the country to record their experiences, gaining an ineffable understanding about this contradictory and unwieldy nation. After much wrangling with handlers and receptionists, a notion to interview interesting and insightful Americans along the way turns into a disparate cross section of citizens (this may be the first feature film with appearances by Chuck D, Geraldine Ferraro and Ben & Jerry) answering questions like 'Are you patriotic?â?� and 'What is the American dream?â?� Notably, the answers are mostly pessimistic, presciently voicing fears about how saturated the culture has become with 'information,â?� how the previous model of the land's endless bounty and infinite space is proving untrue and how celebrity has become interchangeable with hero. However, despite the doomsaying content of their words, what lingers is an unquenchable optimism: Tom Robbins puts it most eloquently (and inimitably) when he says that if America were Swiss cheese and the holes were our problems, we wouldn't have enough to make a sandwich ' but how that sandwich would taste!
Gabel and Hahn reinforce how so much of the American narrative is about movement with swishing shots of the panorama whooshing past the windows of their travel van: Chicago ghettos, Indiana corn, New York crowds, New Mexico desert. The selected vignettes from their more than 150 hours of footage are choice and pithy, with a demonstrable gift for unbludgeoning juxtaposition (when Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed declares evangelical conservatives are forced to 'ride in the back of the bus,â?� his unapt metaphor is gently and irrevocably skewered by then-poet laureate Rita Dove's recounting of why Rosa Parks is her hero) and a serendipitous knack for one-of-a-kind encounters (like racing in a red convertible up and down Colorado mountain roads with a genially insane Hunter S. Thompson at the wheel). At the midpoint, narration sums up what's been accomplished so far and the viewer's gut clenches with the disappointing realization that this vicarious adventure will eventually end. It's like Willie Nelson tells the filmmakers: 'Moving is the closest thing to being free.â?�