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James Newton’s life, the occasion for the not uncommon documentary Uncommon Friends of the 20th Century, plays like a stodgier, real-life Forrest Gump. Always the other guy in the famous photograph, Newton’s claim to fame is a list of late friends: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Charles Lindbergh. Narrated by the ur-avuncular Walter Cronkite, Newton’s story purports to take us “beyond the history books” to reveal the private life of the men who “invented the 20th century.” Unfortunately, in John Biffar’s documentary— composed of talking-head interviews, archival footage, and sepia-toned re-creations— Newton merely provides the human-interest entry point for a nostalgic, reverent gloss on the lives of these men.
We do meet Newton— at 94 he and his wife still live in idyllic Fort Meyers, Florida, a hometown he once shared with Edison, Ford, and Firestone— but his anecdotes are so unspecific that his ostensible authority, the premise of the film, feels like a put-on. Perhaps going “beyond the history books” means only that we should ignore the limited and slipshod use of facts (no, Edison did not “make the first 1000 movies”) in favor of the film’s interest in instilling values. Key qualities intoned by Cronkite and shared by Newton and his friends include genius, character, integrity, and especially faith. (Newton’s genius, incidentally, is a “genius for friendship.”) Given that the film is intended as a timely look at men who represent a conservative and unquestioning notion of American values, even on its wholesome textbook level, it falls flat.