America (2014) / Documentary-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violent images
Running Time: 103 min.
Cast: Dinesh D'Souza, Don Taylor, John Koopman, Josh Bonzie, Chad Baker, Rich Bentz, Janitta Swain, Alan Dershowitz, Rand Paul
Director: Dinesh D'Souza, John Sullivan
Screenplay: Dinesh D'Souza, Bruce Schooley, John Sullivan (based on D'Souza's book, "America: Imagine the World Without Her")
Review published July 5, 2014
I've seen some critics make statements about conservative documentarians like Dinesh D'Souza and claim they are like right-wing Michael Moores, but I respectfully disagree. The reason Michael Moore's films regularly get praise from film critics isn't because he espouses a left-of-center point of view that these same (often) liberal critics espouse, though that may enter into it for some. The reason is that Michael Moore, love him or hate him, makes documentaries that are often funny, heartbreaking, thought provoking and entertaining.
I haven't yet seen D'Souza's prior documentary, 2016: Obama's America, but it made enough money, thanks to its controversial premise, to earn back its budget ten-fold, but it still only raked in about 25% of Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, again showing not so much the divide in the country along political lines so much as which filmmaker they consider worth spending money on to give a thoughtful and entertaining presentation. I have seen D'Souza's follow-up, America, based on his book, and can attest that the film isn't poorly produced in terms of graphics, visuals, editing, and execution, but it largely fails because it is bland, humorless, boring, and reeks of terrible argumentation.
Now, some of you who are conservative, or just don't have a political bias, would also argue that Michael Moore's arguments also don't hold water a great deal of the time, and I might agree in many instances. However, I do wholeheartedly recommend Moore's films over ones like America because, whereas Moore recognizes the art of showmanship, the arguments are all D'Souza delivers, and they are woefully inadequate for anyone who isn't already a disciple of neo-conservative thought. Dramatic recreations do occur in this film, but they feel like LARPers decided to make costumes and re-enact George Washington's Battle of Brandywine in 1777, or a local theater production have been filmed for dramatic renditions of the speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. They look like they're set up as "Saturday Night Live" skits than as a peek into history.
The first two-thirds of this film are D'Souza's attempt to address what many have come to believe are the ills of America, both in its origins and in its modern-day foreign policies. He separates these grievances into five main categories: the genocide of the indigenous peoples, the theft of land in the Southwest from the Mexicans, the enslavement of African peoples, the Imperialist post-WWII policies in many other parts of the globe, and the disparity between the haves and have-nots in our own country.
To D'Souza's credit, before he takes on trying to dismantle these claims, he does interview people with opposing viewpoints and allows them to make a few comments, so we do get to hear from their own mouths a few of their criticisms about how America has conducted its business in the past and present. The problem is that some of the viewpoints espoused are from people who are viewed as quite radical, even among people on the left side of the political spectrum, and in no way represent the vast majority opinion of even those whose ideals run contrary to D'Souza's. It's pretty easy to win the argument when you're taking on people that only a handful of people can ever agree with.
What's worse than setting up straw-man arguments is the fact that D'Souza's position isn't just that what these radicals are saying is lunacy, but that America has done and will never do anything but good. Christopher Columbus? He never set foot on American soil, and he wasn't an American. Indian genocide? Americans didn't want to eradicate them, and many of them died from lack of immunity to European diseases, so it isn't our fault. Enslaved blacks? Well, there were white people who were indentured servants and there were black slave owners, so there's plenty of blame all around. The greed of the wealthy? Religious conservatives give far more to charitable causes than their atheist counterparts on the left. Imperialist foreign conquests? We found one veteran P.O.W. who actually thought the U.S. was only in Vietnam to protect the South Vietnamese from oppression, and we didn't take all of the oil in Iraq, so there.
All of this occurs in the first hour, and while bland and full of half-baked argumentation, had this been the entirety of the documentary's focus, it would have garnered a middling, but fair, 2.5 stars out of 5 from me. Unfortunately, when you read the amount of stars I give D'Souza's film below, there is the final half hour where this documentary manages to not just overplay its hand, it throws all the cards in your face and upends the entire table. This final half hour is merely an attempt to pin all of the root cause of American shaming directly on the leaders on the left side of the spectrum, and in particular, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. It's the half hour where D'Souza finally rips off his sheep's clothing and comes to devour you with his usual Obama-is-the-devil-incarnate ranting.
It all starts with the bogeyman-du-jour that the conservative right has propped up, community organizer and writer Saul Alinsky, who just so happens to have had an influence on the early political thinking of Obama and Clinton. The problem with D'Souza's argumentation is that he tries to paint Alinsky as a great puppet master who has masterminded the anti-American movement that our current political leaders on the left believe, and that Alinsky himself views his modus operandi as being patterned after Lucifer, aka the Devil, the first great radical thinker. So, when you view Obama and Clinton, D'Souza says through implication, you're listening to the strains of evil.
D'Souza goes a step further by suggesting that Obama is also responsible for using his arms of government to control information about you that will be used against you if you do not comply. Your every phone conversation, email, and many other tidbits are being recorded by Obama should you ever show yourself to be an enemy to his cause, and he will use his unfathomable influence to take you down. D'Souza, who has been arrested for illegal political contributions, does claim ownership of his misdeed, but asserts that the reason he was under investigation is because of his prior documentary about Obama. In D'Souza's world, the political right is America, and America is always right; anything they might do, whether it be breaking campaign laws or ripping families apart and enslaving them to spend their days in abject misery, can be justified so that it seems not so bad, really.
If you're of a mind to think that Mexicans wouldn't like to have the land they lost to the United States back so much as wish the United States could have taken ALL of Mexico so that they too can enjoy the fruits of liberty, America is the movie for you. If you're of a mind to think that Frederick Douglass opting to stay in the United States to fight for abolition rather than return to Africa means that even he recognized that this country is a much better place to be, then America is for you. If you're of a mind to think whites who (mostly) voluntarily chose seven years of servitude in order to come to the U.S. is on a par with African people toiling for their entire lives with no rights or hope is the same thing, then America is for you. If you're of a mind to think that because there was a black slave owner that it means that slavers and plantation owners weren't really racist, then America is for you.
In other words, if you are someone who would rather gouge your eyes out and pour molten lead in your earholes before you'll ever look at evidence that some of the practices that led to the formation of our country were reprehensible from a human rights standpoint, or that the rich are getting richer and the middle class and poor are getting poorer completely independently of how hard they actually work (Wall Street swindlers work harder than garbage men?), or that it's OK to hate the American president, the government, and paying taxes, but that it's not OK if that president is a Republican, if the government is working to support billionaires and corporations, or that tax dollars and American lives are worth it if it's used to fight ill-defined wars overseas, then you have your movie. When you're this sufficiently closed-minded, you don't need to destroy your eyes and ears, especially when there are people like D'Souza to fill them with the kind of political brain reconditioning that Saul Alinsky would be in awe of.
©2014 Vince Leo