U.S. gets stark closeup in ‘American: An Odyssey to 1947’

“Oppenheimer” fans might take a look at a non-fiction study of the period spanned in Christopher Nolan’s surprise hit. A somewhat convoluted, but valuable “odyssey,” to be sure, Danny Wu’s award-winning documentary “American: An Odyssey to 1947” tells three true stories. One is of the whirlwind known as Orson Welles, the “boy wonder” from Kenosha, who terrorized the nation with a 1938 “reality radio” broadcast based on H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic “The War of the Worlds,” and went on to direct at age 25 the 1941 release “Citizen Kane,” one of the best films ever made. In addition to archival footage of Welles and his co-workers, we get interviews with actor and Welles’ biographer Simon Callow and Boston-born former actor and Welles’ authority Richard France.

Interwoven with the tale of Welles, Japanese-American Howard Kakita appears on screen to tell his own story of how he and his older brother were sent to Japan to visit an ailing grandfather just before the war and were subsequently 1.2 kilometers from where the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. Prior to that event, we are reminded in photographs, newsreels and interviews with psychotherapist Satsuki Ina about how Japanese-Americans, especially in the Southwest, were interned in camps during the war. In fact, anyone with an Asian face was suspect in America at that time. Of the internment camps, Ina says simply, “American turned its back on us.”

The third timeline of “American” is about the pioneering civil rights figure Isaac Woodard. A sergeant returning from World War II with four medals for his service, Woodard was on a bus in Aiken, South Carolina when he had a run-in with the police, specifically a policeman named Chief Lynwood Shull and his deputies. Woodard was left blinded by his encounter. Hearing of the case, Welles, who was under investigation by the F.B.I. and hosted an ABC radio program entitled “Orson Welles’ Commentaries,” demanded justice for Woodard on the air, prompting a dormant Justice Department to act. The NAACP took up Woodward’s case as well. Many now consider the case of Isaac Woodard, who went on to become a public speaker, to be the catalyst of the nascent civil rights movement.

“American” often notes cases of intersection and symmetry. When Welles was 19, he directed an all-Black cast in a federally-funded production of “Macbeth” that was a sold-out sensation in Harlem, He forged a friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is the time when the once more moderate William Randolph Hearst, who would become the model for Welles “Citizen Kane,” spurred by Roosevelt’s “graduated income tax,” turned more conservative and used his newspaper empire to battle “progressives.” Before the war, Hearst was even a Hitler fan. Hearst would use his power to quash “Citizen Kane” by refusing ads for the film and forcing theater chains to boycott the film. J. Edgar Hoover would be encouraged to open that investigation on Welles.

Among the material Wu unearths are Hoboken-N.J.-born Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Japanese families waiting to hear about their fate and being forcibly transported. At about the time Welles delivered F.D.R.’s eulogy, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (Kakita horrifically recalls “a march of zombies”), and decorated soldier Woodard was blinded. “American,” which was also an early title of “Citizen Kane,” reminds us that it is a daily struggle to keep our country safe.

(“American: An Odyssey to 1947” contains scenes of anguish and inebriated celebration)

“American: An Odyssey to 1947”

Not Rated. On VOD Grade: B+

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