Set on a train filled with strangers looking to the horizon for a life change, the final effort of the late Albert Maysles is a worthy goodbye.
When documentary legend Albert Maysles died in March, his loss hit with the same immediacy that defined his work (the most famous of which he made with his late brother David). In Transit is enduring proof that the iconic director of vérité masterpieces like Salesman and Grey Gardens left behind even more than we first realized. Immediately joining the ranks of cinema’s most bittersweet swansongs, this gentle but (literally) moving doc takes us along for a ride on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route. Embedding themselves on the colossal steel corridor as it snakes its way through the heart of the country from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago, Maysles and his collaborators acquaint themselves with a cross-section of passengers from all walks of life.
A heartsick Midwesterner who’s struggling with his partner rides across the plains so that he can free his mind to think about the future. An aging stranger who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr. gives advice to a younger man about how to transform his pain into strength—they hold hands as the train rolls through the geographical center of the United States. A drunken bro calls the girl he’s traveling a thousand miles to meet for the first time. The film’s most overtly dramatic thread follows a young woman who’s nine months pregnant, short on options and desperate to reach her best friend before going into labor.
Forget title cards or formal introductions. In Transit holds true to Maysles’s tradition of bracingly direct observational portraits. Given that each of the film’s subjects is trying to get from one place to another, it’s fitting that we meet them all midstream. Everything we glean about these people is born from the serendipity of a shared moment in the seam of our national infrastructure. Alternately funny, touching, tough and hopeful, In Transit never tells you how to feel, but it sure makes it easy to feel it.
A mosaic of happenstance, the documentary crystallizes an abstract yet fundamental truth of American life, which is that movement isn’t only eminently possible, it’s also the greatest promise this country makes to the people who call it home. And so the Empire Builder reveals itself to be the ideal setting for a Maysles movie. Like the subjects of his most revered classics, the people on the train are each trying to reconcile who they are with where they see themselves, and only through the camera does it become clear that life is about what happens between stations.
Follow David Ehrlich on Twitter: @davidehrlich