Out of all of the movies I planned on covering for the Tribeca Film Festival, A Day in the Life of America was by far one of the most ambitious films that could have gone completely haywire. This documentary has a striking premise: camera crews documented how people in all fifty states celebrated the 4th of July in 2017, the summer after Donald Trump became President. The goal was to see a snapshot of how people lived their lives and what the 4th of July meant to them. If done well, we would be able to see a panorama of American life that would paint a colorful and chaotic picture of what it means to be an American and what America actually is, for better or worse.
As a historian, I love this idea. It’s unique and has the potential to be a fascinating look at our culture, forcing people to get outside of their comfort zone to see real people speaking their minds freely in a way that’s different from your own. And that’s before you find out that this documentary was made by Jared Leto. Yes, THAT Jared Leto. With music, of course, done by 30 Seconds to Mars.
I think this is the best movie I saw at the festival. Save the best for last I suppose.
A Day in the Life of America
Director: Jared Leto
Release: April 27, 2019 (Tribeca Film Festival)
What is America? A Day in the Life of America spends its entire runtime not really trying to offer a single answer on what exactly America is, but instead what America means to multiple people. We never learn the names of any of the people that are filmed, but that irrelevant. We just see how they spend their 4th of July and are asked a few softball questions about what is life in America and how they feel about the American Dream. Depending on where you ask that question, the result is completely different.
To some, America is perfect. It’s a land where any dream can come true no matter what. We see a truck driver talk in Wisconsin about how she was able to make a career out of nothing or watch a bunch of people from California go skydiving to celebrate their independence. We see a trans woman go on a date with her girlfriend in New York, happy to say that she can live in a country where she can actually live a normal life and not be persecuted for her gender.
To others, America has flaws. We see families in Chicago defeated at how their city has become a violent playground for gangs where death is commonplace. The camera crew in Chicago stop an interview because what they thought was fireworks going off turned out to be gunfire, killing a person. So they follow their subject and her kid to figure out if it was anyone they knew. Gangs talk about how their goal is just to live another day and that no one cares if they live or die, as long as they can protect their children. In Louisiana, black families talk about how their parents were pushed into communities they did not want to live in and now their kids are still economically stuck there. Their American dreams were limited from birth.
And for other people, America is broken. America is so divided that people spend their 4th of July protesting President Trump across the country, solely focused on getting him out of power. Trump supporters and Trump detractors are both featured, but the real divide comes from the crew in North Carolina. In that state, we follow a chapter of the KKK as their members talk about how a race war is needed to reclaim America to its true glory. A cross is burned, women sew Klan robes, and they stress that America desperately needs to be saved. One month later, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville makes national headlines for the hate speech spewed out by far-right nationalists that resulted in a woman being killed in a car crash.
A Day in the Life of America doesn’t have any comment to say about any of these people. It just shows us what our country is like and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. And it left me with the idea that America is beautiful, but also going through some very hard times. Despite the footage being collected from 2017 it’s still relevant today, a fact I’m not sure is good or bad. People are still in an “us vs. them” mentality and will probably continue this thought process for years to come. America has failed many people in that regard, but it has succeeded for others. A man moved to the United States from Canada because he was dying of a brain tumor, but neurosurgeons were able to remove it and restore him back to his former self. Because of that, he walks across America to show his appreciation for the nation whose medical advances were able to save his life.
I have no idea how Jared Leto was able to capture these moments so well, but it comes across as completely honest film making. I was a bit disappointed that it only explicitly covered about a dozen states during its 70 minute runtime. He did film in 50 states, but most of the states were used to get stock footage and show general celebrations instead of those juicy, in depth moments. My home state, New Jersey, wasn’t even name checked in footage and had only a single camera operator visit the state. Worse, there’s no way of knowing which states were used for which shots except if the movie blatantly told you where this next segment was. But that’s honestly a minor concern.
I suppose you could argue that it’s listless and just flows from one scene to another without any real purpose, but the premise alone kind of dispels that claim. We’re meant to play observer to what America is like on a day of celebration. Even in moments where newscasters say all of our political differences are put aside for a day, it’s clear that that’s not true. A drunk southern man, with a bottle of vodka in one hand and and a bottle of Sprite in the other, talks about how wonderful it is to live in America, but the man who’s sitting right next to him says that America isn’t doing too well. They have a debate, and it eventually ends with the drunk man going shooting with his rifle, unable to reach a conclusion.
I couldn’t turn my eyes away from what I was watching. I don’t know what A Day in the Life of America did to me, but it made me rethink my own thoughts on what it truly means to be an American. So many different perspectives and thoughts were thrown against me and I started to think about opinions that never crossed my mind before. Even after seeing it a couple of days ago, I still can’t get this movie out of my head. It’s a beautiful, thought provoking documentary about a country that’s as divisive as it is vast. Like America, this is a melting pot of age, race, gender, wealth, occupation, and location all saying what America means to them. But in the end, a movie about the 4th of July can only end in one way.
Everyone stops to watch the fireworks.