(US); 1999; Not Rated; 63 Minutes
Documentary footage of James Newton, Thomas Edison, Charles
Lindbergh, and others
Produced by Paul S. Bush and John Biffar; Directed
by John Biffar; narrated by Walter Cronkite
by DAVID KEYES
difficulty with documenting American portraits is that,
when the person has carried a friendship with others who
are even more famous, the focus shifts and they lose out
in the end. This is the case behind the John Biffar production
of "Uncommon Friends Of The 20th Century," which tells the
story of James D. Newton, a man who possessed everlasting
admiration and friendship with some of the most influential
people of the last 100 years. We learn that he was acquainted
with Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, Alexis
Carrel and Harvey Firestone. We are given interesting little
facts about each, such as the point of Edison being fond
of children. Heck, we even learn that each died in interesting
circumstances, like when one of them came into the world
by candlelight, and died by it, too. But what do we learn
about Newton personally? Not much.
is genuine, complex material, but somehow it feels staged.
Why? Because while revisiting the past, the movie reenacts
many scenes, and all lack the necessary passion and depth.
We must not also exclude these filmmakers' stale motivation,
which loads up on uninteresting facts and quirks that, at
close examination, sound like things straight out of the
National Enquirer. As sad as it may seem, "Uncommon Friends
Of The 20th Century" is shallow, empty, often dull material,
and watching it feels like sitting through a high school
history lesson. At least a history lesson has a negotiable
D. Newton nonetheless has a story to tell here. With 63
minutes, we pass through the developing relationships from
his long and happy life (the man is now 94 years old, in
fact). The first is with that famous inventor Thomas Edison,
who invented the light bulb, and help revolutionize the
advancement of other certain things (this is the most gripping
part of the story, since he was also responsible for the
creation of the movie camera, and the first to jump-start
Hollywood's interest in silent films). A few interesting
facts cross the path, including one that has to do with
his last days. On his deathbed, the large clock in his house
stopped telling time. It has since then, supposedly, remained
unset to preserve the exact moment when he left Earth. Other
chums? Charles Lindbergh is another of the notables. The
famous pilot, responsible for several achievements, carried
with Newton what seems to be the most important of relationships.
It is a complex description that I shall avoid, but I can
assure the viewer of its effectiveness.
Friends Of The 20th Century" gets its name (and therefore
its staged feel) from Newton's situation. Sharing relationships
with men like this must be considered one of the wonders
of the past 100 years--aside from the movie, though, I have
never once heard mention of this intriguing piece of modern
history. A documentary, expectedly, about unbelievable truths
would try to bring authenticity to them. This is one that
does nothing to add reality to fact, and is edited together
with both actual film footage and reenacted scenes very
confusingly. Even the narration feels unjustified; it is
so strong and so well executed that, because of the story's
little believability, it sounds like someone is reading
lines from a fairy tale.
the press notes, there is an interesting fact outlined,
in which the narrator, Walter Cronkite, believed offhand
that the material he was being presented with was false
and mocked (as he put it, Newton was more like "some mythical
character someone dreamt up"). Extensive research on the
topic, and an actual meeting with this man, proved otherwise.
He later adds a blurb about Newton being "one of the most
extraordinary people of the 20th century." Indeed, the quote
appears to speak the truth, as this is a man whose cronies
redefined aspects of modern life. It is understandable why
such influential personalities would want to be around him.
If only the movie were able to say the same thing.
1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
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