Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
The title and premise of Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip promise a Charles Kuralt-like stroll through the naturalization process in every state in the nation, but the simple fact of its one-hour run time belies the title: this is no road trip, but a race. Documentarian Alexandra Pelosi has no time to waste on the real stories of the people in her film. They are all at the end of a difficult journey, choosing to repatriate to a new country, sometimes far from their family members, and having gone through an intentionally difficult process of vetting and test-taking. However, Pelosi’s gentle questioning, while perhaps borne of her respect for their dignity, fails to push through the surface of their stories, reducing what surely must be some fascinating accounts and complex motives into mere soundbites. If the Unites States of America were a corporation (recognizing that there are some who wish that it were), this would be the type of self-aggrandizing, aggressively-inspirational-yet-strangely-devoid-of-content fluff that would play at its stockholder meetings. Given that HBO has chosen to premiere it today, July 4th, perhaps that it exactly what it is.
The premise is simple. Pelosi, who is never on-screen and yet remains a presence throughout, is inspired by her Dutch-born husband’s decision to become a naturalized citizen of her home country. She decides to take a road trip through all 50 states to film naturalization ceremonies and to tell the stories of the people who have made the decision to become, like her husband, citizens of this country. All of the premise has a bit of a homey feel, even the scene at the beginning where President Obama and her husband recite the Pledge of Allegiance together (as you may know, it is more than coincidence that Pelosi shares a surname with the current Minority Leader of the House of Representatives). However, it is when she hits the road that Pelosi becomes seemingly overwhelmed by the size of her project.
She starts out strongly with ceremonies in New Hampshire and Iowa. The choice of these states seems significant, given that these states host the earliest Presidential primaries, but whatever significance it carries is lost on this viewer. The New Hampshire ceremony features kids singing “This Land Is Your Land,” while the Iowa ceremony features Sen. Chuck Grassley informing the new citizens about their opportunities to seek office. The new citizens Pelosi interviews at each are from Eastern Europe and quite delighted by the freedoms of their new country. As charming as this seems, these ceremonies soon settle into a pattern. New state. Snippet of a song or performance for local color. Immigrant from Eastern Europe or the Middle East telling us how happy they are to be a U.S. citizen now. In this way, we quickly rush through more and more states haphazardly. Considering how distant they are from one another, these are most likely not chronological from her road trip, nor, for the most part, are they organized thematically. The editing decisions are a bit mystifying.
Pelosi interrupts her trip periodically to interview notable naturalized citizens: Madeleine Albright (the former Marie Jana Korbelova from Czechoslovakia), Heinz Alfred “Hank” Kissinger (unmentioned fact: he is considered a war criminal in many places around the world), Arianna Huffington, and famed Israeli immigrant Chaim “Gene Simmons” Witz, who holds an honorary Doctorate of Love. Why these particular immigrants? One can see that Albright and Kissinger have something in common, but Huffington and the King Of The Night Time World? Why in the world are they there? Hey, this documentary is only an hour long! We don’t have time for your stupid questions.
Many states make appearances only via their Interstate welcome signs. Others have very little to tell them apart from any other state. There are very large ceremonies in the states with very large populations. California has 3,340 citizens being naturalized in a single ceremony. Texas has 2,280, including a Canadian with the dubious name of Tommy Pilgrim who moved here to stockpile what sounds like an impressive arsenal of guns. Texas also has a sweet family of Mexican immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande illegally but are now taking advantage of amnesty laws. There are plenty of other immigrants with stories more interesting than those of Kissinger, Huffington, or Witz (who I’m never going to call Gene Simmons again). The immigrants in Nebraska are refugees from Iraq, one of whom is hiding what is presumably a beer behind his back throughout the interview. He tells Pelosi that the immigration service sent groups of people from their camp to different states at random. In New York (the only state without an identifying sign and that uses man-on-the-street interview tactics), there is a gay Iranian man. Utah has a missionary Buddhist monk from Thailand. Kentucky has a Paralympian from Nigeria. South Dakota has a Thai educator who proudly shows off her email from Steve Jobs telling her how much he likes her math app. Florida has a little person from Indonesia who appears a bit suspicious about Pelosi’s motives. South Carolina has 52 soldiers becoming citizens of the country in whose military they already serve. Regardless of where they are from, immigrants agree that they love American freedoms. Many also believe that Americans take these freedoms for granted.
This is the fundamental problem here: the length of the movie means that it has no time for narrative. There are a lot of people in this movie, but there is no time for anything but the slightest glimpse at their humanity. Much of what we hear and see is content with surface impressions. Why did you become an American? For the freedom? Fascinating! Let’s move on. Oh, we’re in Texas, so let’s have a shot of an oil derrick. People don’t uproot their families, leave behind loved ones, and repatriate to a country with as slippery an international reputation as ours simply because of they want to take advantage of its freedoms and chide its natural-born citizens for taking them for granted. Maybe that is a part of it, sure, but there’s more, because freedom is simply too shallow and abstract a concept to motivate a person to get out of bed, let alone to make the sacrifice that all of the people in this movie have made. It’s like saying that one climbs Everest because one likes success. Lots of people like to be successful, but very few climb any mountains. And yet Pelosi is not interested in their stories, not really. She is happy with the veneer of their stories: the appearance, the abstract, the inspirational. That which signifies what this country wants to signify without bothering to get into the messy stuff of what this country actually is and what it really means to its newest citizens.
She does make a few small attempts to impose order on her too-large project. After the halfway mark, she groups images of kids at the ceremonies into one montage. We have women in two subsequent states talking about women’s rights in America. Another small grouping has people in different states talking about safety. There’s a gaggle of Ph.D.s. The most interesting state is Arizona, where outside the ceremony, protesters line up with riot police over Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws. Inside, a naturalized man from Mexico expresses solidarity with the protesters, talking about his illegal immigrant parents and Martin Luther King, Jr. I bet a documentarian who knows how to ask follow-up questions could make a pretty interesting movie about that guy and what he’s going through. As is, that’s the only appearance of anything smacking of politics in the movie. Oh sure, there’s Obama with her husband and cutouts of Obama and Sarah Palin in the opening montage, but both disappear from the rest of the flick with a pronounced swiftness.
At the end, her arduous-but-hardly-seen road trip concluded, Pelosi says that the coolest thing about this country is that each state has people from all over the world. Then she says that her favorite thing about the country is its most recent citizens. In what counts as a deep thought, she says that to keep the dream of this country alive, our country must continue to be welcoming to new immigrants. This sentiment may have more impact if edited with the Arizona footage, but over images of her home in Manhattan and her family, it doesn’t carry any punch. There’s no sense that Pelosi learned anything from her travels, nor that she intended to do so. We are left with the impression that the previous hour has been little but footage from a whimsical vacation.
The final shots are of people singing Lee Greenwood’s “Proud To Be An American” at different naturalization ceremonies all over the U.S. I’m sorry to say that the Immigration and Naturalization Service apparently believes that this piece of musical tripe has replaced our more complex national anthem or any of the alternatives. While it is lovely to see new Americans singing the song with such gusto and emotion, this country has produced a surfeit of perfectly acceptable patriotic ballads that could offer a better-written vehicle for that emotion to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Interestingly, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is, in fact, our national anthem, is unheard throughout the movie. Instead, there’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which would be my pick for alternative patriotic ballad, “God Bless America,” “America The Beautiful,” and the aforementioned “Proud To Be An American.” Of all of these, only the latter reduces the American experience to “at least I know I’m free,” making it perhaps a fittingly shallow conclusion to a strangely shallow film.