Review: “2016: Obama’s America”

A still from Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan's documentary "2016: Obama's America."Few American presidents have inspired as much dissonance in public perception as Barack Obama. Political junkies and ordinary citizens alike are highly accustomed to the wide range of terms used to characterize the current Commander-in-Chief — from visionary to bumbling buffoon, post-racial uniter to race-baiter, bold terror warrior to scheming capitulator, socialist to corporate stooge, Christian to Muslim, great success to abject failure.

To this list, conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and filmmaker John Sullivan add “anti-colonialist,” which may sound like an antiquated and esoteric label, but it is nonetheless the one upon which they base their documentary “2016: Obama’s America.” The characterization and its subsequent support are designed to convince audiences to vote against the President come November. In this respect, the film is similar to Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which also took down a sitting president during an election year (albeit from the polar opposite side of the aisle). But there is one key difference between the two films: “2016: Obama’s America” actually offers reasoned insight, something that “Fahrenheit 9/11” sorely lacked.

The film completely avoids popular conspiracy theories about Obama’s “true” religion and birthplace, instead settling on the much softer (and probable) notion that his early influences, ranging from his lowlife, drunken father to his college pals, instilled in him a marked distaste for Western exceptionalism, which would later weigh heavily on his decision-making as President. This is a strong charge that directors D’Souza and Sullivan don’t explicitly commit to until the final act, but it nonetheless bears considerable fruit.

D’Souza functions as the film’s tour-guide, a role in which he doesn’t possess the energy of Michael Moore, but compensates with intellectual authoritativeness and calm that make his cases easier to accept as reasoned logic instead of fringe hyperbole. He begins by tracing Obama’s origins, from his childhood relationship with a certifiably vile father, who was undoubtedly an anti-colonialist, through his university years, when he struck up friendships with radical figures like the little-known Frank Marshall Davis and the well-known Bill Ayers.

D’Souza goes on to interview experts in various fields (including an authority on the unique psyche of single-parent children) before tracking down Obama’s half-brother, apparently making him the first American to do so. (By contrast, consider how the media sent operatives to dumpster-dive for dirt on Sarah Palin.) While D’Souza fails to get the Kenyan sibling to denounce Obama for not being personally involved in his life, he nonetheless winds up with a compelling interview as the man laments the miserable state of his nation in comparison to capitalist competitors.

Through all of this, D’Souza and Sullivan’s “anti-colonialist” characterization only winds up being moderately persuasive in that there is no smoking gun presented that makes their argument irrefutable. What the film instead presents are facts wrapped in a theory that is offered as an explanation for why Obama governs as he does, with predictions of dire consequences if his worldview is empowered by a second term. Those inclined to believe will find these assertions easy to swallow, but the only part of the film that skeptics will buy is that the President had a really lousy home life as a child.

Despite the relative fragility of its central thesis, the film does a great job of juggling and balancing a vast array of ideas and facts — far better than any Moore doc. This is intricate work and while some points are shortchanged and others are overemphasized, they ultimately coalesce into a provocative portrait of Obama’s current policies and, more importantly, his future intents. In fact, D’Souza and Sullivan’s work is engaging enough that it could have used more. The film’s 89 minute runtime is ideal for non-political wonks, but the filmmakers could have easily spent another hour on Obama’s tenure in Illinois, his positions on social and foreign policy issues, and the political realities that have shaped his decisions.

Despite the film’s doomsday-implying title, D’Souza and Sullivan stop short of declaring that a runaway Obama Administration would completely destroy the nation altogether. In this sense, they exercise commendable restraint and offer a surprisingly measured case. Even though there are few truly undecided voters capable of being swayed by “2016: Obama’s America,” the film will nonetheless likely prove to be the most compelling right-leaning political documentary released for years to come.