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Review: 'A Day in the Life of America'

Capturing a snapshot of an entire nation is a daunting task.

During the Great Depression, the government hired some of the best photographers in the land to capture the face of a nation during a time of crisis.

The FSA (Farm Security Administration) photos were magnificent, a time capsule treasure for future generations. They were the first photographs to be called “documentary photographs.”

I wrote about them in my doctoral dissertation “Photographs and Their Meaning” (1979).

The project took many months to complete.

The idea of taking the pulse of a nation in a single day is even more intriguing.

LIFE Magazine attempted it years ago in a special 94-page edition that documented the events of September 5, 1974. It was an ambitious project.

Even more ambitious is Jared Leto’s documentary film project A Day in the Life of America about the events that took place across our nation on July 4, 2017.

(Photo by: Carrie Moniot)

The Oscar winning actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman dispatched 92 film crews to all 50 states to capture a video portrait of where we were, collectively, on that date.

I saw an early cut of the film, “a work in progress” as Leto called it when he introduced it at the Tribeca Film Festival that afternoon back in 2019 in New York City. It was certainly that.

(Photo by: Carrie Moniot)

It was an enormous undertaking in terms of the planning, shooting and editing of the project. I give him credit for that.

I wondered how anyone could make sense of an undertaking like that, compressing many hundreds of hours of footage into a cohesive 2-hour documentary. I questioned whether it could really be accomplished in any serious way.

What I did see that day was a very serious attempt to do what he had set about to do.

The film had a sense of coverage and inclusiveness with scenes shot from coast to coast. Much of it was interesting and entertaining, but when it was over, it was clear that it fell short of covering all 50 states or even a balanced cross-section of the locations that were covered.

Some of the people interviewed appeared several times in the film, which seemed like a bad decision when your goal is to fit a lot of material into a limited amount of time.

It felt like Leto and his team had perhaps only started to sift through the mountain of material and that we were looking to a rough cut of a first attempt to tell the story.

Flash forward to the recent airing of the current director’s cut of A Day in the Life of America on PBS’s acclaimed "Independent Lens" series which I watched with great curiosity.

Having been a videotape editor years ago, I had great interest in how the project had shaped up since its debut.

The opening few minutes were evidence that a lot of work had gone into the project in the many months that transpired. It was briskly paced with a power and energy that the earlier cut lacked.

Interview redundancy had been trimmed out. Lots more material was artfully squeezed in.

And while it still didn’t feel like it lived up to the promise of covering every state in the nation on a single day, it did manage to roll out a lot to see and experience.

The 69 minutes of run time contained an exhilarating amount of coverage and it wasted no time grabbing attention and shattering expectations.

Early scenes focused on a camera crew in the process of making a porn video. Not long afterward, we meet a tattooed young woman smoking crack in her West Virginia apartment pondering what the future would hold for her.

There were glimpses of the transgendered and gay communities, minority neighborhoods, Southern strongholds of the KKK, Native American tribal rituals, rodeos and a host of parades, backyard barbeques and evening fireworks.

All the while, people stared into the camera lens and tried to define America and what it meant to be an American in the early days of the Trump administration.

A Day in the Life of America is a time capsule.

It's a barometer of a nation and a culture struggling with issues of racism and violence as well as a host of other issues that divided us in the years preceding the global pandemic or the meltdown that led to the siege of Capitol Hill.

The film does a good job identifying the simmering anger and violence leading up to the recent political upheaval in America, and it balances the bad with the good, people still exhibiting optimism and hope in the midst of unrest.

A young black boy growing up in a violent neighborhood whose dream is to someday be a policeman in the hopes of making the world a better place.

There’s a lot to witness and a lot to consider here.

While it becomes clear that you can’t cover an entire nation in the course of several short hours, it also becomes clear that A Day in the Life of America is perhaps more interested in exploring the sometimes oddball fringes of America for the sake of entertainment rather than investigating the vast majority of people who comprise the heartland.

What’s missing here are the interviews with the less-shocking more average people who represent our population at this point in our history.

While they may be less interesting on the surface, they may offer more insight into the divisive reality that has virtually split the country in half.

Understandably, taking on this project was an exercise in biting off more than one could ever chew.

Merely envisioning it and attempting to do it is admirable.

One wonders if there was a wealth of watchable material that ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

If that was the case, my suggestion would be to spread the project out over perhaps 10 hours that could be aired on five consecutive nights.

It’s a big country. With a million stories out there.


A Day in the Life of America is streaming on PBS.

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