Last weekend, 2016: Obama's America, an anti-Obama documentary released in roughly 1,000 theaters nationwide, shocked observers by making more money than fellow new releases Premium Rush and Hit & Run, both of which were shown on twice as many screens. It's already the sixth-highest-grossing political documentary of all time—behind four Michael Moore movies and An Inconvenient Truth, actually—and is the highest-grossing explicitly right-wing film ever. (Passing Atlas Shrugged, anti-abortion film October Baby, and that sad Michael Moore satire An American Carol by the wayward Zucker brother.) This took me by surprise along with everyone else, because I had literally never heard of the film until I saw it on the marquee of my local theater.
As a devoted moviegoer, as, dammit, a concerned citizen, I figured I owed it to myself, to you, to get out there and decipher what this was all about. So I went to go see the movie yesterday, at 10 a.m., at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square.
Let me say up front that I voted for Obama in 2008—even gave money to him, in fact—and plan on doing so again in 2012. Still, I have voted for many Republicans in my life (including Michael Bloomberg, though he probably doesn't count) and thought the whole Chick-fil-A thing was more complex than either side allowed it to be. (Well: I like gay marriage, and I also like the chicken.) I have political views, because I'm a human being, but I find discussing politics, particularly online, a grueling, idiotic process in which people on opposite sides of an issue, rather than trying to actually come to some honest disagreement as to what an ephemeral, essentially unknowable truth might be, assume the other person is an asshole and do everything in their power to try to destroy them.
So I tread carefully here. Particularly when I tell you this movie is horrible.
If you were wondering who goes to see an anti-Obama documentary at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday in Times Square, here's yesterday's audience:
• Three blue-haired ladies, two of whom talked throughout the entire film.
• A guy who appeared to be in his early '30s wearing a pinstriped suit, minus the jacket but including suspenders.
• A black guy and a white guy, both young, with beards. They looked like people I might meet again in regular life, and I had the urge to hide from them. They left after about 15 minutes. I assume they were looking for Hope Springs.
2016: Obama's America is based on two books by Dinesh D'Souza, a noted (if not particularly intellectually respected) right-wing scholar who had huge hits with The Roots of Obama's Rage and Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream. He has turned these books into this documentary, which he co-directed, wrote and hosted. Yes, this movie is mostly about Dinesh D'Souza.
Suffice it to say, despite the film's financial success, I am not sure D'Souza has a future in movies, in front of or behind the camera. (Maybe next to it? He might be all right next to it.) As a screen presence, he is limp and empty, the economics professor whose class you always skipped, the one whose earnestness and overly helpful, patronizing explanations seem to disguise a quiet contempt for you and your stupid intellect. When D'Souza is listening to one of his interview subjects, his eyelids droop and his jaw sags, like he's shutting his brain off until the other person is done talking, so he can talk again. Then, when he does, he talks right past the interviewee. He's a compulsive mansplainer.
This is a problem because you see a helluva lot more of D'Souza in this movie than you do of Obama. We learn about D'Souza's upbringing in India, and his education at Dartmouth, and the time he met President Reagan, and this one time at band camp, and next thing you know, the movie's half over.
It is fair to say that D'Souza's cinematic instincts aren't necessarily those of a born storyteller. The best way I can describe his narrative technique is to explain the movie's most hilarious scene. It's early on, and D'Souza is recounting, via voiceover, a debate he once had on Stanford's campus with Jesse Jackson. (D'Souza has a thing with Jesse Jackson; he shows up, like, seven times in the movie. Is it still 1988?) He talks about how Jackson claimed, in their debate, that racism was less overt than it used to be but still existed, bubbling under the surface.
While D'Souza's telling this story, the movie shows us a black guy walking into a bar full of white people. He sits down at the bar between two white guys and, just as D'Souza's relaying Jackson's message that race is a larger part of society than we want to admit, the two white guys flat get up and walk away from him, right out of the room. Everyone in the bar then looks at the black guy, accusingly, menacingly.
Oh shit, right? But then D'Souza hits the moral of the story. He tells us, still via voiceover, that what he told Jackson back then was that in his experience, racism had been mostly eradicated. While he's saying this, while the words are coming out of his mouth, the two white guys come back to the bar and ... give the black guy a birthday cake. It was his birthday all along! Everyone in the bar then gives him a standing ovation. It turns out this bar wasn't full of crackers who instantly sprint out of the room when you sit down, black guy. It was just your birthday! Surprise! White people love you!
(Honestly, this scene really has to be seen to be believed.)
Finally, the movie gets down to Obama, and D'Souza's narrative capabilities don't help him out much there either. Best I can tell, his argument is that Obama got his entire political worldview from his late father, who D'Souza claims was an anti-colonialist, anti-American, racist terrorist drunken black guy from some crazy black-guy country. Hence, Obama hates America and is part of some secret plot launched by his father to take down the country from inside the very belly of the beast.
You might have spotted a few plot holes here, perhaps centrally the fact that Obama only met his father once, when he was 10, and therefore didn't have that much time for input on matters of colonialism and eventual Manchurian Candidate sleeper cell-ism. But D'Souza goes all the way with this: He claims the "Dreams from My Father" of Obama's autobiography of that title were, in fact, dreams of taking down America. The primary evidence of this is a paper Obama Sr. wrote in 1964 saying that America was sometimes overly forceful in its foreign relations. (No word if Obama Sr. made Young Obama read the tract when he was 10, or instead, you know, gave him a basketball or something. BUT THE IMPLICATIONS ARE CLEAR.)
Later, D'Souza even claims Obama's mother—who died of cancer when her son was 34—had these same anti-American sensibilities, which is a pretty nice thing to say about a lady who died 10 years before her son ever ran for national office. I'm not even sure what any of this is supposed to mean. I certainly hope I never find anything my father wrote when I was three years old, because I will then of course have no choice but to blindly follow that document's orders for the rest of my life.
But D'Souza, to his credit I suppose, seems to really believe all this bullshit: that Obama isn't just the wrong person to be president but is actively trying to take us down from within. Because of something his Dad, who you may recall left Obama fatherless at birth, may or may not have written five decades ago.
D'Souza has all sorts of weird theories, though, and none of them makes sense together; it's all sinister "doesn't it seem fair to wonder?"-type implications. He interviews some random student at the University of Hawaii who claims that the people of Hawaii have always considered rebelling against the lower 48. He argues that Obama wants to raise taxes and also that he is purposely trying to bankrupt the country. He blasts Obama for not taking better care of his half-brother even while the half-brother (who realizes immediately it was a mistake to agree to this interview) keeps saying, "No, I'm fine, I'm fine, seriously, stop that." He goes off on this tangent about Obama hating the moon or something. My favorite is when he claims that Obama "sees Al Qaeda leaders as anti-colonial freedom fighters like him, his allies in their global worldview." Well, that's a theory!
This is all pretty tough to take—most of the movie is at the debate-team level of the comments below a Yahoo! front-page post—but it'd be easier if at least D'Souza were audacious enough to capture one's attention, let alone hold it. This is not a Rush Limbaugh broadside, delivered by a gifted entertainer who knows his medium. The movie is plodding and meandering and inept and, most of all, completely lacking in even a modicum of humor; not only does the movie not contain a single joke, I'm not sure D'Souza knows what a joke is. Michael Moore can be nearly as intellectually dishonest—nearly, but not entirely, to be clear—but at least he can slow down every once in a while and toss in some levity between polemics. I bet all the other Young Republicans at Dartmouth made fun of D'Souza a lot.
When the film was over—it's 88 minutes and feels like 888—everyone shuffled out of the theater, the two old ladies still chattering (one did applaud), the guy in the pinstripes looking depressed as he urinated next to me afterward. As with Moore's films, I wonder whom this movie is for. If you're a partisan loon like D'Souza or Moore, you'll cheer and vote the same way you were going to anyway. If you're sympathetic to D'Souza's or Moore's political beliefs but intellectually honest, the movie is so full of bunk that you have to hope it doesn't hurt your cause. And if you feel the opposite of Moore or D'Souza or are undecided, the last thing this movie would do would change your mind.
The reason this movie exists is the same reasons all movies exist: to make money. D'Souza has done that; he'll surely rack up even higher speaking fees at right-wing events now than he did before. That's the one honest thing about this movie, the part at the beginning where you hand over the ticket price.
There's surely a case to be made against re-electing Barack Obama this year. But if this is the best the opposition can do ... man, Obama's gonna be just fine.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.