Uncommon Friends Of The 20th Century
Rating -

Documentary (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

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Written by DAVID KEYES

The 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.

This 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 message.

James 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.

"Uncommon 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.

In 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. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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