REVIEW: Right-Wing Attack Doc 2016: Obama's America Stumbles, Obsesses Over The Wrong Issues
With the out-of-nowhere success of 2016: Obama’s America, the nation could finally have a conservative counterpart to Michael Moore. I say the nation rather than the Republicans, because a balanced box office is good for us all, at least as a reminder of our right to oppose the current government and make a profit in doing so. Similar to Moore’s release of Fahrenheit 9/11 during the summer of 2004, author-turned-filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza offers a one-sided, first-person documentary that challenges the incumbent President during his campaign for re-election. Unlike his liberal predecessor, however, D’Souza, who co-directs with writer/producer John Sullivan (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed), doesn’t have much to fall back on in the way of entertainment value and so only delivers a transient attraction for the anti-Obama crowd.
You could say that a film like 2016 shouldn’t be entertaining, and maybe it is true that the left’s overdependence on jokesters and satire have hurt their efforts in the past. But while Fahrenheit 9/11 might not have influenced enough voters eight years ago, it remains a popular work of cinema in its own right primarily because of Moore’s appeal to a certain audience both personally and stylistically. D’Souza is neither engaging as a character nor as a storyteller, but even worse here is his lack of intensity. As a pressing piece of propaganda, the film could use a louder voice and edgier tone. To truly be an effective Moore equivalent, frankly, D’Souza could stand to be more of a nuisance.
Basing the documentary on his best-selling books The Roots of Obama’s Rage and Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream, D’Souza, retains a very subjective angle for his exploration of the President’s true identity and political motives. In fact, before really even addressing the titular subject, the filmmaker takes the first portion of the film to set up his own biographical relevance, which aside from his being born outside the U.S. (oh, hush) corresponds quite uncannily as a way of comparing his own background to Barack Obama’s and then raising the question of how they ended up on such contrary idealistic paths.
Through interpretation of passages from Obama’s book Dreams From My Father and an interview with a psychologist, D’Souza comes up with a thesis involving the President’s daddy issues. Paralleling the last administration’s critics, 2016 at times comes off like a slightly deeper kin to Oliver Stone’s W. without the fun of caricaturistic portrayals. More complex than Bush’s supposed need to make his still-living father proud, the deal with Obama is that he’s apparently impaired by a romanticized adoration of his never-there father as well as a desire to honor the elder Obama’s anti-colonial principles.
On that track to expose the President’s ultimate goal of turning America into a flaccid, non-imperialistic country that is run with outdated collectivist policies, D’Souza’s intended ace in the hole is an appearance from Obama’s half-brother George, whose tiny abode in Kenya D’Souza refers to as “something out of Slumdog Millionaire.” The filmmaker fails to get the young man to talk negatively of his powerful brother’s neglect of poor family members abroad, even with literal attempts to “rephrase the question.” Finally, he settles on simply revealing George’s belief that the third world was better off under colonial rule.
So what? Other than potentially inspiring an interesting and metaphorical novel about two brothers with divergent relationships to an unknown father in a long-post-colonial world, the disconnect between geographically and temporally distant siblings doesn’t provide much substance for the film’s argument that the President is the worst leader in U.S. history. And really neither does Obama’s presumed paternal problem, which borders on an obsession for D’Souza. Still, it’s a reflection of a certain concern Americans have with the singularity of the executive branch and our compulsion to focus on the individual character of our Presidents over the plans and actions of their overall administrations.
Eventually, 2016 does get into real criticisms with Obama’s initial election, which is basically credited to white guilt and the allure for people to be a part of history, and with his first term, which, it's claimed, shows hints of a larger anti-colonialist agenda. A shot at the relevancy of NASA seems especially misdirected given the excitement of the Curiosity rover landing on Mars earlier this month, however. And further speculation of the President’s full-on dismantling of the U.S. as a superpower once he’s over the hump of re-election is again too hypothetical. Meanwhile, given the concentration of the Romney/Ryan campaign, it’s unfortunate that only a couple minutes near the end of the film are devoted to Obama’s handling of the national deficit.
Of course, this isn’t a documentary in support of Mitt Romney or any Republican candidate so much as it’s an extensive attack ad against Barack Obama. It should illuminate just how much of a repeat this election year is of 2004. Then, it wasn’t about voting for Kerry; it was about voting against Bush. Now it’s just politically reversed, not about voting for Romney but against Obama. And if Romney does win, someone, whether Michael Moore or another liberal filmmaker, will give us the next documentary in the cycle of opposition.
If there is one major thing I’ll give 2016 credit for, it’s that much of the film plays almost as well to a pro-Obama audience as to those against him. It preaches to both choirs in that a lot of the intentions and policies of the President, which D’Souza sees as negative, are those which the leader’s fans see as positive. Much of the left would surely love it if Obama truly transformed the United States into a nuke-free nation with socialized medicine and education. Some might watch this documentary and think, “well, yes, that’s our Obama.”
Of course, there is the occasional blast of clear vitriol, such as when the President is baselessly said to be less concerned with helping the poor than stripping the wealth of the rich. But that’s to be expected with these films, which are less concerned with what kind of President is good for America than what kind of President is not. And I’m sure it’s expected of me to be less focused on what would have made this a good film than what makes it a bad one. I can only say it’s not a very memorable one, and regardless of the outcome this November, after Election Day I guess it doesn’t need to be.
Christopher Campbell is an Atlanta-based movie blogger specializing in documentary. Follow him on Twitter @thefilmcynic.
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