A woman on the eastbound Empire Builder to Chicago is nine months pregnant and three days overdue. She’s headed from California to Minneapolis, where her mother and best friend wait to help with her delivery. Fleeing a troubled relationship, she tried to hop on a plane but none of the airlines would take her. And so she sits on the train as it cruises through Montana and North Dakota, rushing along Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route. She’s remarkably buoyant, under the circumstances, and so is the train staff. Everyone is clearly concerned about the potential rail delivery, but it’s hardly unprecedented. One Amtrak worker fondly remembers the time a woman had her child on a train, with the help of an Amish midwife who happened to be traveling.
The above is just one of the many stories in the final film from legendary documentarian Albert Maysles. In Transit is a study of the Empire Builder line, a direct cinema style gem built up from the stories these travelers tell as the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains roll by. It’s directed by Maysles and four collaborators: Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu. The assembled footage captures the majesty of the landscape and the rumbling charm of the train. The Empire Builder has a traditional dining car, complete with table service, as well as sleeping compartments. It also has an observation car with enormous glass windows, a perfect place from which to view American topographical grandeur.
The landscape is, however, only the backdrop. The real triumph here is the way that Maysles et al present the many passengers, who share their stories with remarkable frankness. As one woman explains, the train is a place of clarity and emotional independence. When at home she’s someone’s wife, someone’s sister, someone’s mother. When riding the train she is simply herself. Another passenger, a Native American man who grew up along the Empire Builder’s route, is on his way to his childhood home. He has left relationship troubles behind on the West Coast and is traveling to the Great Plains to clear his head. Each seems remarkably at ease, their character evoked effortlessly by the closeness of the camera.
Each of the above passengers appears for a single scene. Others, like the pregnant woman on her way to Minneapolis, return a few times. In Transit is as beautiful as it is because of this kind of intuition, the directors’ ability to figure out exactly how long each subject needs. At a brief 76 minutes this is no easy task, yet the breathless perfection of every structural choice keeps the film chugging along as if riding on air. An older woman on the return trip from seeing her daughter for the first time in decades tells her tragic story, a brutal yarn of an abusive husband and children put up for adoption. She then returns just once more, singing a traditional song about the Titanic for the benefit of two British tourists in the dining car. Maysles et al have the confidence to let these two moments speak for themselves, two different shades of the same woman that tell us so much, and in such a short time.
The shared song in the dining car is also a charming example of the many transient personal connections featured in the film. If a person is at their truest self when taking the role of a traveler, then it seems to follow quite beautifully that these people should be at their most open to conversation. This is obviously true of their relationship with the filmmakers, but it also creates some touching moments between passengers. A man who never thought his train ride could be so profound meets an aging gentleman who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the two discuss the big questions of life, family and hope. The young impending mother becomes friends with an aging photographer, whose own story grants In Transit its final tear jerker moment.
This is a film about America, after all, and America is nothing if not a place of diverse connections. That the train is dubbed the “Empire Builder” and strikes from Chicago out into what used to be the Wild West certainly pushes the metaphor forward. A decidedly 21st century America, if there is such a thing, can be seen everywhere. A young single mother of four, who ran away her North Dakota home as a teenager, is returning to introduce her sisters to her new biracial family. Another young man laughs through his pointed and perceptive declaration of class, that a guy taking the train out to the mountains to interview for a pottery job and ski can’t be as broke has he claims. People who “find themselves” have rich parents, or at the very least if he were actually broke he’d be on a Greyhound.
At the same time, the persistence of the Old West is evoked by the state of North Dakota, now something of a hotspot for nonfiction cinema. As the train stops in Williston, capital of the oil boom, men get off the train to look for work. Mostly young and mostly white, this crowd is the 21st century variant on the aging American Dream. “Go West, young man,” and take the Empire Builder to Williston. In Transit offers no complex reading of North Dakota’s economy, but it doesn’t have to. As has long been the case in Maysles’s films, these characters speak for themselves. They evoke the world around them as profoundly as they inhabit it, and the resulting film is a gorgeous trip through the heart of the nation.