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After scoring a surprise box-office success with his last documentary, 2016: Obama’s America, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza has been handed a more lavish budget for America, a patriotic hymn set to open around the country on the Fourth of July weekend. There will be an audience for this earnest screed, but since it doesn’t have such a controversial political agenda as the earlier film, it may not capture quite the same number of fervent fans.
Because the dire predictions he made in 2016 about the dangers of Barack Obama’s reelection haven’t really come true, at least not yet, D’Souza and co-director John Sullivan have taken a different tack here. The focus is not really on Obama but on the notion of American exceptionalism that Obama and others have ostensibly tried to undermine. D’Souza, who also co-wrote and narrates this new film, admits that Obama is not the primary villain undermining America’s image. He identifies academics and activists who have promoted a historical narrative of American “shame” that our fearless correspondent sets out to refute. D’Souza cites several recurring indictments of America: our displacing of Native Americans, our annexation of the Southwest from Mexico, our history of slavery and racism, our imperialistic designs on other countries over the decades, and the abuses of capitalism.
The first problem with the film is its overstatement of these anti-American tenets ostensibly running rampant in our society. It may be true that some university professors continue to denounce America for its racist and imperialist sins, but this dogma has not exactly seized Main Street USA. Even most liberal politicians these days feel the need to stand up for the American can-do spirit. D’Souza posits a simmering crisis that doesn’t really exist outside a few college campuses.
More significantly, however, D’Souza’s answers to critiques by intellectuals Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn (whom he exalts by describing as the most influential historian of the last 50 years) and Saul D. Alinsky aren’t very convincing. D’Souza admits that slavery was a blight on our history, but he tries to downplay the tragedy by pointing out that other countries also have employed slaves, that America exploited white indentured servants in addition to black slaves and that there were some black plantation owners in the South. (Yes, it has always been true that there are self-hating members of any minority group who take on the role of their oppressors.) And he skims over the long history of American racism that persisted after the end of the Civil War.
Similarly, D’Souza glosses over the mistreatment of Native American populations and falsifies the nature of many of our imperialistic adventures. He ignores the economic impetus behind our interventions in Central America, Iran and many other countries. When it comes to more recent incursions, D’Souza doesn’t really defend our involvement in Vietnam or in Iraq, but neither does he acknowledge the tragic, wasteful consequences of our immersion in those wars.
That means America is tendentious and unconvincing as a celebration of American ideals. But how does this latest venture rank as a piece of filmmaking? It’s certainly more ambitious than 2016, with lavish re-creations of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Vietnam War. The battle scenes are competent but no more than that, and the performances are perfunctory at best. After all, when we’ve seen Daniel Day-Lewis portraying Lincoln, the performance of a game young actor named Don Taylor is bound to pale by comparison. Similarly, scenes of Americans in a Vietnamese POW camp are pretty limp when placed alongside electrifying scenes from The Deer Hunter. The only audience members who might be impressed by these historical re-creations are people who haven’t seen a lot of other movies. The cinematography by Ben Huddleston is striking, but I’m not sure that handsome helicopter shots of the Rocky Mountains go very far in making the case for American exceptionalism. There are plenty of equally stunning vistas that might be found in Switzerland, Russia or D’Souza’s native India.
Finally, the film throws in a number of random bits that don’t add much to the overall narrative. Apparently, as a preview for his next presidential documentary, D’Souza includes a few irrelevant jabs at Hillary Clinton. The filmmaker indicts the Obama administration by citing the persecution of Aaron Swartz, who killed himself after being indicted for disseminating articles from academic journals — but that story was more incisively chronicled in the new documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy. And D’Souza also acknowledges his own legal troubles when he was charged with violating campaign finance laws. But he then quickly drops the subject without in-depth exploration.
In other words, here is one more dubious piece of agitprop that will delight the author’s fans and have very little impact on his opponents.
Opens: Wednesday, July 2 (Lionsgate)
Narrator: Dinesh D’Souza
Directors: Dinesh D’Souza, John Sullivan
Screenwriters: Dinesh D’Souza, John Sullivan, Bruce Schooley
Based on the book by: Dinesh D’Souza
Producer: Gerald R. Molen
Director of photography: Ben Huddleston
Editors: Rickie Lee, Jeffrey Linford
Music: Bryan E. Miller
Rated PG-13, 104 minutes
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