Movies Pay Tribute to Americana

Two entertainment films and one documentary explore the nation's legends and history

AMERICANA has been a staple of American movies from the beginning and remains so today.

A comedy-drama called "The Babe," a musical called "Newsies," and a documentary called "American Dream" all deal with issues of United States life and history; two of them - "Newsies" and "American Dream" - tackle the highly charged subject of labor-union strikes.

Despite superficial similarities, however, the three new pictures are very different and accomplish their goals with widely varying success.

The Babe is named after its hero, Babe Ruth, probably the most famous of all American baseball players.

If you've seen newsreel shots of his batting and base-running, you know he wasn't the most graceful of athletes. And he was known to have plenty of strike-outs when he wasn't busy setting a home-run record that stood for decades - and still endures, if statistics are adjusted for modern playing schedules.

However uneven his career might have been, Ruth uniquely combined the scruffy charm of professional sports with the anything-goes energy of the Roaring '20s. It isn't surprising that his legend still interests Hollywood.

It is surprising that Universal's picture about him is such a fourth-rate piece of moviemaking.

It begins with Ruth as a child, being thrown into a nasty-looking orphanage by his uncaring father. The action is so trite and cartoonish that you think matters have to improve when our hero grows up, if only because the talented John Goodman is advertised in the title role.

As expected, Mr. Goodman is just fine when he eventually arrives. But the movie around him sheds little illumination on Ruth, and even less on the time in which he lived. Goodman was born to play this role, but John Fusco was not born to write this screenplay, and Arthur Hiller was not born to direct this movie.

Sad to say, "The Babe" is a bomb.

Newsies, the latest arrival from Walt Disney Pictures, is a live-action musical. This makes it a rarity in today's Hollywood, which has practically given up on the all-singing, all-dancing genre that once enjoyed huge popularity with audiences everywhere.

To match its historical format, "Newsies" has a historical subject: a street-corner strike against journalistic tycoon Joseph Pulitzer, mounted by New York City newspaper hawkers just before the turn of the century.

IT'S a true story and a lively one, full of feisty kids convinced that their righteous cause can prevail against any amount of money, power, and prestige. Here as in "The Babe," however, the filmmakers revel in cliches instead of seeking fresh approaches. How many adorable urchins, rabble-rousing speeches, and "dese-dem-and-dose" accents can the average moviegoer swallow in one sitting?

Disney deserves an A for effort and perhaps a B for boldness, for trying so heartily to revive the once-proud tradition of movie musicals. But the picture doesn't have enough zesty ideas to justify the attempt.

Going to see "Newsies" is like running into a dinosaur in your local park. It's a healthy, friendly, good-looking dinosaur. But it's a dinosaur nevertheless, and its future is definitely not bright.

While documentaries have a traditionally smaller audience than musicals and comedy-dramas, they often pay the biggest dividends to moviegoers who seek them out.

American Dream, directed by Barbara Kopple, had its premiere at the New York Film Festival almost two years ago and went on to win last year's Academy Award for best feature-length documentary. But not until recently has it managed to enter the movie-theater circuit, which shows how difficult it is for nonfiction films to break through the barriers of commercially molded mass-market programming.

Like the 1977 documentary "Harlan Country USA," which first established Ms. Kopple's reputation, "American Dream" records a conflict between labor and management.

In the earlier film, it was a successful Kentucky coal-mining strike; in the new picture, it's a long and bitter strike at a Middle Western meatpacking plant. During the first half of "American Dream," it seems clear that Kopple has approached her subject in the same spirit that shaped "Harlan County USA," with admiration for the labor-union system and faith in the ultimate triumph of exploited workers. But events take a different course this time. The union finds itself deeply split by internal disputes , and labor-management issues become diluted and confused by these disagreements.

The extraordinary drama of "American Dream" grows partly from the increasingly complex situation that it records. But it also grows from Kopple's decision to confront and chronicle events no matter what path they follow - and no matter how strongly they indicate that the American labor movement has lost a portion of its credibility in recent years, and needs reconsideration in a hurry.

Kopple is a filmmaker of much conviction and consistency, and "American Dream" is in no way a cynical film, a pessimistic film, or an antilabor film. It is a vivid record of a scrupulous filmmaker grappling with difficult moral and practical issues in an ever-shifting social climate.

A more absorbing piece of Americana isn't likely to come our way for a long while.

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