Review: “America” (2014)

Dinesh D'Souza returns as frontman in the documentary "America," his follow-up to "2016: Obama's America."“America” is conservative author Dinesh D’Souza and filmmaker John Sullivan’s de facto sequel to “2016: Obama’s America,” their hit 2012 political film that became the second-highest grossing documentary of all-time but failed to thwart the president’s reelection. If that movie’s objective (other than profit, of course) was to unseat a sitting president, this one aims for something broader and easier, a defense of the United States as a positive national entity throughout history. President Obama might not be the primary target, but “America” is just as certain to divide audiences and critics along ideological and partisan lines.

Framed with historical reenactments and contemporary footage of stirring slices of Americana, the film is pointedly designed for an audience that likes its meat read and its national depictions idyllic. Critics on any side of the aisle could legitimately charge the filmmakers with glossing over the countless debates and nuances to this topic, but the movie really isn’t an issue- or a think-piece. Instead, it’s intended as a heartfelt defense of America from inception up.

Though the film also goes by the full title “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” and opens with a scene depicting George Washington killed in battle, such a provocative premise is immediately jettisoned in favor of a multi-staged defense of the United States in the face of some of its most common and harshest criticisms.

D’Souza, again the narrator, interviewer, and star, talks to figures such as Noam Chomsky, Eric Michael Dyson, and Ward Churchill, all of whom state to some extent that America is a nation built on greed and theft. None are given much time to make detailed arguments, their interviews serving instead as a jumping off point for D’Souza to refute their anti-American rationale. In several cases, he makes a persuasive case, such as when dismissing the notion that the U.S. “stole” Mexican lands and when arguing that famed historian Howard Zinn was a pure ideologue who maliciously left out meritorious parts of America’s history to bolster his own case. For interviewees on the other side of the political spectrum, D’Souza settles for a pair of famously right-wing senators and some softer personalities, such as a Hispanic law school student and a woman who rose from welfare to prosperity.

The film’s primary failure occurs when it arrives at slavery, America’s peculiar institution whose effects reverberate through contemporary life more than any other piece of the nation’s history other than perhaps the revolution itself. D’Souza’s assertion that the country fought a war to end slavery feels limp, framing the Civil War as exclusively a saintly effort to scrub a blight from the landscape, in a rather inane appeal to pathos that blatantly tries to flatter audience sensibilities. D’Souza scores a valid point in reminding the audience that slavery was far from a uniquely American or even racial evil, though this ultimately feels like an afterthought rather than an effective argument in the nation’s favor.

After rebutting the array of criticisms about America, the filmmakers briefly detour for a strange, awkward segment that could be described as “Capitalism for Conservative Kids,”  before setting their sights on President Obama and probable-next-president Hillary Clinton. Both are depicted, in a series of scenes that could have been written by Newt Gingrich, as acolytes of proto-community organizer Saul Alinsky. The case isn’t altogether weak when it comes to Clinton, as she actually met with and wrote her thesis on Alinsky, though those who have followed her career know that the Clinton’s ideology is Clintonism, not capitalism nor Marxism nor anything else. Obama is spared the withering assault of D’Souza and Sullivan’s last film, and, as before, charges that he’s socialist will have conservatives nodding their heads, liberals shaking them, and far-leftists saying “I wish!” Unlike with Clinton, the Alinsky link is tenuous, and though we’re reminded of Obama’s unsavory connection with the likes of domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, the fact of the matter is that the nation has collectively decided that it doesn’t care, for better or worse.

Peppered throughout the film are moments that highlight the virtues of America and the possibilities for prosperity, though these seem included more to match vitriolic anti-American sentiment than for their own merit. Time spent on soaring instrumental music laid over reenactments might have been better used on touting the country’s incredible prosperity, innumerable technological and cultural contributions, and stabilizing role on the world stage.

D’Souza and Sullivan don’t suggest there are no losers, but often miss chances to clearly drive home the notion that because of the United States, there have been many, many more winners. A simple question posed to critical interviewees could have been devastating: “How do you think most nations would behave if they possessed even half the military and economic power of the United States?”

The movie ends on a note that is unmistakably bitter, as D’Souza, who was recently convicted of campaign finance fraud and faces prison time, alleges that his targeting was entirely motivated by politics. He is possibly right, and if so, the message is necessary, though it caps things by giving the work an unintentional theme: that there’s much out there to criticize about America, be it right or wrong. A defense of a righteous nation is a noble endeavor, but a truly effective documentary might have left audiences marveling at how much good America has done rather than thinking that it’s not so bad, after all.