2016: Obama's America
Director : s Dinesh D’Souza & John Sullivan
Screenplay : Dinesh D’Souza & John Sullivan
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2012
Although 2016: Obama’s America is very much of a piece with the kind of contentious political docu-polemics that have flourished over the past decade and a half, it is actually most directly comparable to a much, much older film: Walt Disney’s Victory Through Air Power (1943). Like that film, 2016 is a lavishly produced movie version of an already published bestselling book, in this case conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2010), which was also distilled into a cover story in Forbes and formed the backbone of D’Souza’s many television appearances around that time. Both films forcefully posit theories that their authors think will dramatically change the world, hence the necessity of giving them voice in more than one medium. Both films also prominently feature their authors on screen: aviation pioneer Alexander de Seversky appears throughout Victory Through Air Power explaining his argument that the Allied Powers could win World War II only through strategic long-range bombing, while D’Souza is the most frequent presence in 2016, to the point that he plays both interviewer and interviewee while also narrating.
And, while D’Souza tosses quite a few long-range bombs of his own, nothing in 2016 is new. He doesn’t dig up any dirt that hasn’t already been out there for some time. Instead, he takes what is already known and weaves it together into an argument that no one else has thought to make: that Barack Obama’s political wordview is driven largely by the lingering influence of his Kenyan father, who was shaped by an anticolonialist worldview that castigated the United States, its Western allies, and their capitalist system (including colonialism) as the direct cause of the Third World’s many ills. While colonialism is no longer much of an issue in the 21st century, its lingering effects are, and D’Souza posits the idea that much of Obama’s policymaking can be explained by his desire to “right the wrongs” of the past by purposefully weakening the United States and other traditional colonial powers and buttressing the weaker nations, which D’Souza sees in everything from the Obama administration’s unwillingness to be tougher on Iran, to the White House returning a bust of Winston Churchill to England. The evidence is highly selective and varies widely in effectiveness, but D’Souza mounts his argument with a kind of calm intensity that gives it some credence—for a while, at least.
The film is divided roughly into three parts. In the first past, D’Souza focuses primarily on himself, explaining his own past as an Indian immigrant who escaped the strictures of traditional Indian society in the late 1970s for the freedoms promised in the United States, including an Ivy League education at Dartmouth and a subsequent appointment in the Reagan administration. D’Souza compares his experiences directly with Obama’s, noting their many similarities (same age, both Ivy League educated, both of mixed-race heritage with roots in “exotic” foreign countries). The goal here is clearly to establish D’Souza as the ideal critic of Obama and his political worldview, since the entire film is predicated on his ability to “understand” Obama—a man he has never met and with whom he has never spoken—and his motivations in a way that no one else does. While there is certainly some merit in establishing his credentials in this regard, D’Souza—like Michael Moore before him, minus the caustic sense of humor—far oversells his rather dull presence in the film, and much of it comes across as simply narcissistic, which is later confirmed with the extensive number of cut away’s to himself nodding importantly while interviewing others and filler shots of him standing around locations in Kenya and Indonesia looking stoic and thoughtful.
The middle half of the film is focused on bolstering D’Souza’s central thesis about the incredible influence Obama’s father has had on him. D’Souza’s most rhetorically powerful evidence comes from Obama himself, specifically carefully selected excerpts from his 2004 autobiography Dreams From My Father, the title of which D’Souza argues is key to understanding the crucial ideological connection between father and son: Not dreams “of” my father, but dreams “from” my father, suggesting that Obama is literally an ideological reincarnation of the absentee revolutionary father he met only once. To bolster his claims, he interviews a number of talking heads, including New York University psychologist Paul Vitz, who substantiates D’Souza’s claim that Obama could be more, rather than less, influenced by his father because, in his absence, Obama idealized him. Other interviewees include Shelby Steele, a member of the Hoover Institute (where D’Souza has also worked) who talks about the race issue and how racial guilt helped get Obama elected (which is the only explanation D’Souza could find for why such an unknown quantity with such a dubious background could be elected President), and Joseph Ojiru, an anticolonialist and friend of Barack Sr.’s who confirms that father and son are “one.” He also brings out figures who will be familiar to those who followed the 2008 election, specifically a quintet of friends and associates that D’Souza dubs “Obama’s Founding Fathers”: socialist poet Frank Marshall Davis, former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers, anti-Zionist academic Edward Said, socialist Harvard professor Roberto Unger, and fiery black liberation theologian Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Each of these men represents something scary—socialism, terrorism, anti-Semitism, and racism—with the implication being that Obama incarnates all of these -isms in his insidious brand of anti-Americanism.
And this leads us to the point where the film takes a hard right turn in its final section, leaping from D’Souza’s psychological/sociological explanation of Obama’s politics to speculation as to where we are headed if he is re-elected, which in short is a greatly weakened United States, possibly without a nuclear arsenal, facing a heavily armed “United States of Islam” across the ocean. It is here that the film takes a truly ridiculous nosedive into the political deep end and will likely lose those middle-of-the-roaders who might be swayed one way or another. This is a severe miscalculation on D’Souza’s part, unless he is only interested in firing up those who are already convinced that Obama is not just a bad President, but is literally dangerous to the future of the United States. It’s strange, if only because, prior to the film’s final 15 minutes, D’Souza had been fairly measured in avoiding the more ridiculous far-right claims about Obama (that he wasn’t born in the United States, that he’s secretly a Muslim, etc.) or Glenn Beck-style connect-the-dots fear-mongering about what lays ahead.
Of course, left-leaning critics are going pick apart every aspect of the film, and in a way D’Souza is quite canny in not giving them much ammunition and forcing them to reach for their shots. Not only does he generally avoid the kind of far-out claims that are so beloved by Tea Partiers, but he frames the film as a psychological explanation—a theory—which means that it literally cannot be “disproved.” He also pulls back his guns from time to time, such as allowing an acknowledgement that George W. Bush also deserves a great deal of blame for the skyrocketing deficit.
This is not to say, however, that he doesn’t employ all the visual rhetoric at his disposal to underscore the film’s fundamental idea, which is that the prospect of another four years of an Obama Presidency should scare the hell out of us. The film is replete with images of dark clouds coalescing ominously in the sky and a heavy overlay of menacing music, which reaches a peak of absurdity when D’Souza scores part of an interview with former comptroller David M. Walker about the deficit with shrieking violins right out of Psycho. It is possible that the film’s slick, overly showy aesthetics (could no one keep the camera still while filming an interview?) come from D’Souza’s co-director, John Sullivan, who previously produced Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008), which took aim at the “intelligent design” debate and used similar visual tactics. Since 2016: Obama’s America is, like Victory Through Air Power seven decades ago, not a documentary but rather an illustrated polemic, there is room for this kind of emotionally manipulative aesthetic license, but in the end it feels like too much, piling on the kind of unnecessary flourishes that make D’Souza’s arguments feel truly strained.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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