Why the Our Towns Documentary Is Timely

A curly haired artist reads from a book, in front of a mural he painted.
The artist Charly Hamilton stands before his mural in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, and reads a passage from Julius Caesar, in a closing scene from HBO’s new Our Towns film. Courtesy of Steven Ascher / HBO

This evening—April 13, at 9 p.m. ET—HBO will air its new documentary Our Towns. The film will be available for streaming on HBO Max, and you can see a brief trailer for it here.

Naturally my wife, Deb Fallows, and I have a special interest in this film. It is based on the book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, that Deb and I wrote, which was published three years ago. That book in turn grew out of a multiyear project of traveling around the country and reporting on smaller cities and rural areas, as part of The Atlantic’s “American Futures” series. We had many partners in this project and made many friends along the way, whose stories we told in the hundreds of online dispatches and several print-magazine stories we filed. We have stayed in touch with a large number of these people and communities, and we have continued to follow their successes, setbacks, and the lessons learned and taught since the time of our first visits.

Deb and I spent much of 2019 on the road with our HBO colleagues—the filmmakers Jeanne Jordan and Steve Ascher, of West City Films, and their team—doing the reporting, interviewing, and 100 days of on-location filming work that went into the movie. Then, during the long year of lockdown, Jeanne and Steve, with their partners at HBO, edited and crafted the film in a process that distilled the countless hours of footage into 97 exquisite minutes on screen. (HBO’s longtime leader, Richard Plepler, was the original champion of this project, and the heads of HBO’s documentary division, Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham, guided it from early stages through release.)

Having presented our view of America strictly in words, Deb and I had no idea how these themes and impressions could be rendered mainly through images and scenes. As print-world people, we couldn’t have explained, or even imagined, what a film version of our journey might ideally look like. But once we saw the first edits we realized, it would look like this. The film exceeded our hopes and expectations for conveying the splendor (and also the scarring) of the American landscape; the passion, humor, and self-awareness (and sometimes self-delusion) of people wrestling with challenges for their communities and their country; and the achievements (and also disappointments) of an America that generally escapes the media’s attention.

So we hope you will watch the film, because we believe it is beautiful, inspiring, surprising, and surprisingly timely. In the months to come, as the weather warms and public life resumes, we hope there will be occasions to show clips from it in viewing sessions around the country, in cities we visited and many more like them.

But the other reason we hope you will watch the film is that we believe the message and spirit expressed in these 90-plus minutes on-screen are even more important in post-pandemic America than we could have foreseen when we began this work.

In short: This film tells the story of America through examples of renewal and recovery that had been on display through decades of the country’s history, and which we captured just before the traumas of the pandemic era set in. As the country begins moving toward the “after” stage of this historic dislocation, those same traits will, we believe, be the keys to successful rebuilding and reconciliation in the years ahead.


Cargo ship in beautiful waters of coastal Maine, at sunset.
A cargo ship in the waters outside Eastport, Maine, from HBO’s new “Our Towns” film (Bryan Harvey / HBO)

It is impossible to fully understand history as we are living through it. But everyone who has lived through, and in many cases been battered by, the turmoil of the past few years understands that these times—our times—will be studied and analyzed long after today’s Americans are gone, as one of the critical moments in the nation’s story.

The United States has endured the worst public-health crisis in living Americans’ memory; its schools and businesses have reeled from the impact, not to mention its families; and its political system has been abused and tested in ways not seen in half a century or more. This has been a dark time around the world, and in certain ways darker for the United States than for many other countries.

The question no one can answer in real time is whether this bad period will eventually be seen as a prelude to conditions that got even worse—or whether, as so many times before in the nation’s history, a time of crisis might shock the country in an era of long-overdue improvements and reforms. Will people a century from now look back on 2021 as a poignant last remnant of the “good old days”—a time before pandemics became even more frequent and uncontrollable, before economic opportunities and rewards became even more skewed, while democratic institutions still seemed repairable, while many of the Earth’s ecosystems might still be saved? Or will our times stand instead as shorthand for yet another of the country’s “bad old days” turning points, in which the country’s institutions and momentum hit bottom and then turned in a more hopeful direction?

No one can know that answer. But nearly everyone can influence what the answer turns out to be.

That is the fundamental idea behind the movie, and the book, and the ongoing efforts Deb and I hope to carry out: That we are all determining, today, what the country will look like tomorrow, and that most of us could use help in doing so. And—the additional idea—at a time when effective new ideas are at a premium, as is the very concept of optimistic possibility, many of the most promising new approaches are being hammered out not in national-level debates but state by state and city by city, town by town.

The importance of flexible, local-level innovation, and the fertile creativity of American society at all its levels, is one of the most familiar themes in American history. It is part of what Alexis de Tocqueville remarked upon in the 1800s. It was the basis of Louis Brandeis’s famous remark, in a 1932 Supreme Court dissent, that localities and states, in their diversity, were the real “laboratories of democracy” for a complex nation. It is a theme that has run through dozens of Deb’s and my reports.

But we believe the concept of local-level experimentation is especially urgent now, because the climate is brightening for putting locally generated ideas into effect. Through several presidential administrations, for a generation or more, national-level politics in this United States has “failed” in its most important functional role. It has become mainly an arena for taking stands and thwarting opponents, rather than matching the still-enormous resources of this nation to its also-enormous problems. In recent times, the place where that matchup has been most likely to work has been not in federal government but at the local and sometimes statewide level. At their experimental and innovative best, local- and regional-level organizations have played a role (loosely) like monasteries in the Middle Ages, as reservoirs of a society’s possibility and learning.

Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the national prospects are changing. This is the result of a partisan event—Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump, and his party’s narrow control of Congress—but it is not fundamentally a partisan phenomenon. How so? The rapid expansion of the interstate highway network in the 1950s, and of public-school science and language instruction in that same era, resulted from a partisan event—Dwight Eisenhower’s ascent to the presidency—but was more a national than a partisan phenomenon. The expansion of the Land Grant University system from the 1860s onward arose from Republican-sponsored legislation but was a cornerstone of a progressive, nationally minded vision.

In 2021, the resources that will soon be flowing to states, cities, and specific communities—for roads and bridges, for modern broadband connections and repairs on antique water pipes, for trains and airports, for health centers and food banks—result from one party’s support but soon will shape the whole nation’s prospects. And how they have that impact—whether we look back on this as a time of renewal, or sloppily missed opportunities—will turn largely on whether past lessons and discoveries of local innovation are successfully applied.

On the last page of the Our Towns book, which we wrote a few months after the presidential election of 2016, Deb and I argued that a moment like the current one could be foreseen. From the 1880s through the 1920s, states and localities had tried out a variety of economic, political, and civic-reform efforts largely ignored at the national level. But “when the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined, and made to work in various ‘laboratories of democracy’ were at hand.” And in our times:

After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital. But their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they would ever imagine.

HBO’s new movie makes this point in a more emotionally powerful way. Its final scene is of the artist Charles Jupiter Hamilton, known as Charly, whose works include a wonderful history-of-our-community mural on a building wall on the west side of Charleston, West Virginia.

When we came across Charly during our filming, he explained the background of the painting—as you’ll hear in the film. And then, unexpectedly, he pulled out a book of Shakespeare plays, and began reading a famous speech by Brutus, from Julius Caesar.

The passage goes:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat …

“I always felt this way,” Charly told us, as he put down the book. “This is a place where the tide is in. If you put your boats out, put your ventures out, right now, we can make something of ourselves.”

Coming where it does—in the film, in the drama of West Virginia, in the current history of the United States—the presentation has tremendous power. And it is our guiding principle. On such a full sea are we now afloat.