Future-bound, still aboard the bobbing Arabella, the Hon. John Winthrop Esq. addressed his "great company of Religious people, of which Christian tribes he was the Brave Leader." Their check was in the mail: Winthrop and the Puritans had not yet reached the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had not yet fully added themselves to the American Experiment. Still on the Atlantic, Winthrop described the gas that would fuel this new world: Christian Charity. Famously, Winthrop declared that this new community would be a City on the Hill--a nod to Matthew 5:14 - 16--a forward model for the backwards world they were then quitting.
"We must delight in each other," he said, "make others conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in that work, as members of the same body."
Winthrop's nautical address has become a canonical contribution to the idea of American Exceptionalism--an ongoing belief that America is inherently different, essentially more blessed than any other nation, that it has managed to unmanacle itself from history. "You are the light of the world," goes the Matthew passage, seeming to give America a pre-game pep-talk in this context. "A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."
At a sober distance--to us who, say, live at the base of the hill--that idea has become mostly risible. But of course there are still plenty of Americans who believe in this warp and woof exceptionalism. And that camp would seem to be divided into those who believe exceptionalism to be a constant state and those who believe that it must be constantly renewed, protected, and fought for. It's been nearly 400 years since Winthrop described his and his people's perfect project and the said lamp on said stand is severely guttering, maintained by so few. Jay Reinke, the subject of Jesse Moss's fantastic new documentary, The Overnighters, is one such person, his hands cupped around that struggling flame.
In the film, desperate, lost, Steinbeckian men flock from all over the country to the oil fields of North Dakota for work, pooling largely in the small town of Williston. Pastor Reinke opens up his church and his parking lot to the migrants, the grand majority of whom are good, respectful men looking for the good, respectful life assured to them by the American Exceptionalism. While the consternated residents of Williston receive these unrequested men with coldness and suspicion, Pastor Reinke receives them with warmth and patience. His church becomes a sort of Shanty Town on the Hill, much to the often hypocritical chagrin of the actual town. As Williston and its residents attempt to hobble Reinke's compassionate efforts through social and legal pressures, the Pastor does his best to soften the situation, going door to door, holding meet and greets; he advises the men--The Overnighters, as they're dubbed--on how to avoid conflict with the townspeople. Talking with one Overnighter, Rainke urges him to simply get a haircut. Even a trim would make him less threatening in the eyes of the put upon community.
"Didn't Jesus have long hair?" the man asks, in one the more casually poignant exchanges of the doc.
Reinke concedes, adding "Jesus didn't have our neighbours."
The trouble with a passive view of American Exceptionalism is it tacitly implies that there's something wrong with those who aren't thriving. It's a system that can't recognize its own failure. Ostensibly Moss set out to document the dual bankruptcy and success of the American Experiment--or, if not the failure, then the ongoing findings--and through meeting the Overnighters, the Willistonians, and Pastor Reinke, he succeeds at detailing all the rocks, all the hard places. In this way, the doc comes wrapped with a bow: The City on the Hill is crumbled, and this one astoundingly tolerant man is doing his best to salvage what few little corners he can. Of course, being the only one in the heaps of fallout, Reinke can't help but draw the wrong kind of attention to himself.
What could have easily been suited to a ten minute reportage for TV explodes and distorts, however, and Moss is suddenly dealing with not necessarily a different story, but a much more nuanced and complicated one. The thrill that Moss must have felt as his story organically and unsuspectingly opened up is palpable. One can't say too much, as there really is a walloping human twist here, the likes of which are becoming increasingly rare in a genre that's become bloated with essays and agendas and foregone conclusions. But the plastic cover does get popped off compassion and charity, exposing the unsightly snarl of wires that makes it go. The revelation and inspection of these tangled workings transforms The Overnighters from a perfectly fine documentary about a nation struggling to fulfill the promise of its founding to a much deeper look at goodness and compassion, at the failure to live up to expectation, to be honest about the past, to be free from it without ignoring it.
Much of American pride is located more in idea more than deed. The lofty aspirations of the founders are cited more than they are ever tangibly employed, and so much national chaffing seems to come from how a person is and how a person thinks they should be. The Experiment's hypothesis is clung to, the findings largely ignored. On the Arabella, Winthrop implored his boatmates to make others' conditions their own, but what happens when you open yourself to the flaws and struggles of others when you yourself and flawed and struggling? Moss couches us in this conflict with The Overnighters, making for one of the most outward-looking and inward-looking documentaries you're likely to see.