In Great Speeches from a Dying World, director Linus Phillips documents the stories of nine homeless people living in Seattle. In varying degrees, their day-to-day lives revolve around finding a place to sleep; selling flowers, magazines or smiles on a street corner; rebuilding their lives; and waiting on government checks to buy liquor and drugs. Each portrait is punctuated by the subject reciting a famous speech from history - the words of Jesus, RFK, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, and others flow lithely off tongues that, hours before, were settling down for a night in a parking garage, shelter, or highway overpass.
At its most simplistic, Great Speeches could be called "theater of the homeless." In most cases, it's unclear whether the words and thoughts spoken represent those of the speaker or the filmmaker. Perhaps it's a bit of both, and then we add to the mix our own sympathy and hope for the downtrodden to be redeemed.
Ultimately, it's the alternating strength and weakness of each individual that overpowers the speeches' stagey feel. Some would say these individuals live the promise of America: freedom, including the freedom to fail or succumb to circumstance, temptation and trauma. But, thankfully (especially for those of us who, like Phillips, get to return home to a warm bed after a night at the movies), all isn't lost. Collectively, the stories also show glimmers of redemption and hope.
Between society's forgotten and society's revered, Phillips draws parallels that speak to the idea that our national identity inescapably encompasses every American - the story of society's lost souls resurfaces in the words of our leaders and prophets, and vice versa. Even if Phillips romanticizes a bit (little anger or malice is depicted - and there's usually a light at the end of the tunnel), the film's nuanced portrayal is a better shake than life's given each subject beforehand.