“…While consistently entertaining and never boring, [America] manages to undermine its limitless premise…”
Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary 2016: Obama’s America was a runaway hit to say the least, especially for a documentary, which took in over $30 million at the box office and went on to be one of the most widely-discussed films of that year. I remember being quite taken by the film from the idea that it wasn’t a film that seemed to propagate fear and hysteria, but raise valid questions, present interesting points, and question certainly one of the least transparent presidents who called and promised for a more transparent government.
The good thing is D’Souza won over numerous people with his well-made, well-structured documentary; the bad news is that even though 2016: Obama’s America wasn’t the anti-Obama, hatchet job that some Conservative commentators claimed it was, he is now tainted with the reputation of a “Conservative pundit” and known to be heavily promoted by the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Those names alone will turn people off from his new film, America: Imagine the World Without Her, a film that can certainly be appreciated by any person on any side of the political spectrum. The biggest problem, however, is that D’Souza’s followup to his breakout success is nowhere near the level of competence of his big hit, and feels like somebody coming back at bat after a grandslam to having only middling success at bunting.
America‘s thesis question, asked in almost all of its trailers, was “where would the world be if the United States never existed?” Right then and there, this question struck me as a question that could be answered, analyzed, and discussed intelligently without the distraction and alienation of a partisan bias, and made me think D’Souza could finally branch out of the Conservative pundit stereotype into a thoughtful and complete sociological analyst. Unfortunately, not only does D’Souza further find himself lost in a sea of throwaway political arguments, explored with surface development, he also finds himself entirely ignoring his own thesis question.
Rather than discussing where the world would be without the authority, drive, and influence of The United States of America, the film critiques the recent influx of, what D’Souza refers to as, “American Shame,” or the idea that the American people should recognize their history with a sense of embarrassment and shame. Despite this idea not circling back to D’Souza’s original thesis, this is still a solid idea to withstand a documentary, and to be fair, the first hour of America is one that adheres to deeply contemplative thought and prompts engaging discussion (thankfully, I saw this film with two close friends who gave me a great discussion following the film). The first hour shows a mixture of Civil War/Revolutionary War reenactments professionally staged to provide viewers with an added effect, and D’Souza “indicting” America on its alleged crimes, such as theft of land (from Native Americans), theft of territory (taking the better half of Mexico’s land), theft of civil rights (from African Americans), theft of resources (from foreign markets, particularly the Middle East), and theft coming from the corporations (from the American people).
D’Souza goes one-by-one, acknowledging what America did to earn controversy and criticism from their methods of alleged theft before going into analyzing why it shouldn’t be viewed as such. Although these discussion provide for uniquely contemplative drama, the way D’Souza writes over the history is a bit questionable. Just because one Mexican man, who found great success in America, sees the so-called “Lost Provinces” of Mexico as a non-issue and that America is still an amazing land of opportunities doesn’t make the history and the perception change in anyway. After all, perception is a matter of opinion, and one case example isn’t going to cut it in terms of rewriting what is the wide or majority belief. In addition, D’Souza only provides other sporadic examples of things that just add to the facts we already know, which isn’t doing much but throwing a smaller needles into a large stack of hay, which, in turn stick out but are not disguised by other, more prominent ideas. Nonetheless, this kind of content is unique and original and provides us with stimulating discussion before America descends into precisely what I didn’t want to see in this particular film or 2016: Obama’s America.
The film’s last half hour, however, spirals to precisely what will alienate and frustrate those optimistic for an unbiased analysis, becoming an unwarranted and unrelated attack on Obama’s presidency, his healthcare policies, numerous liberal ideas, a separate attack on Saul Alinsky, the radical community organizer who authored a book that greatly influenced frontrunning 2016 election candidate Hillary Clinton, extensive discussion and critiques of the National Security Association’s wiretapping, and much more talking points. It feels like D’Souza getting ahead of himself, developing a third, greatly inferior film, to the one he is currently working on and the one he released two years ago. If anything, after taking on Obama with his own words from one of his authored books in his previous film, D’Souza gets cockier, attacking famed author Howard Zinn in addition to Alinsky for their beliefs and ideas that led to the concept of “American Shame.” This has nothing to do with the proposed thesis D’Souza presented and only further alienates more and more people after passing itself off as a nonpartisan documentary.
Even though D’Souza ushers in a thoroughly interesting idea throughout most of the film and even combats simple-minded critiques of capitalism with some well-presented arguments, there’s a large cloud of disappointment that lurks over one of my most anticipated documentaries of the year. America, while consistently entertaining and never boring, manages to undermine its limitless premise, take a path that is grossly misguided from its original intentions, only further dismantles D’Souza’s potential at becoming a nonpartisan thinker and filmmaker, and tacks on a montage of fireworks and jingoistic trite set to Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” that seems to be adhering to an overwrought convention he tried to avoid with his first film.