Directed by Albert Maysles. Rating unavailable
The absorbing In Transit was the final directing effort by documentary hero Albert Maysles, who—along with late brother David and the similarly long-lived and Bostonian Frederick Wiseman, still working at 87—pioneered the influential fly-on-the-wall style of Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. Maysles died two years ago at 88, but not before finding himself with a team of younger filmmakers who gained striking intimacy with ordinary passengers on the evocatively named Empire Builder, a long-distance train running through some of the most economically and environmentally devastated parts of the U.S.
Culled from multiple trips both east and west on a trail line running from Chicago to Seattle and back, the 76-minute film jumps around achronologically—more like a collection of stories than a novel—although a through-line is provided by return visits with several compelling travellers. Some threads are economic, with rootless men chasing after oil jobs in the Dakotas and timber work in the Northwest, as both pursuits are already fading. Others are following romantic pursuits with uncertain outcomes.
Issues of race and family connect many riders, as with the single mom with four interracial children trying to win over her angry father. Elsewhere, a past-due pregnant woman hopes to join her family in time for the birth, and a young black dad, himself fatherless, finds philosophical guidance from an old-timer he stumbles upon in this real-life journey.
Outside, majestic vistas of snow-capped mountains and roaring rivers zip by as seemingly time-frozen passengers read, play cards and guitars, and chat with friends and strangers. Launched in 1929, three years after Maysles was born, the Empire Builder, now operated by Amtrak, represents the kind of sleek mobility that brought people together long before Facebook and Skype. Earlier this year, Donald Trump announced deep cuts to Amtrak, and regulars on this most northerly route expect to see it—like so many things that used to unify Americans—vanish during his presidency.