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Entries in 2016: Obama's America [2012] (1)

Friday
Aug312012

2016: Obama's America (2012)

Kenya Dig It?

It's fitting that IMDb's "Full Cast and Crew" page for 2016: Obama's America lists only two people: co-writer/director Dinesh D'Souza and President Barack Obama. Many people appear in the film--including performers who re-enact moments from both men's childhoods, plus a handful of talking heads--but the documenter and his subject get the top and only billings.*

This may be key to understanding why a ninety-minute political attack ad feels so personal on D'Souza's part. Sure, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (another election-year vehicle meant to help oust an ideological opponent) also came off as a grudge, but its breathtaking collection of facts and interviews were slickly packaged and entertaining. Regardless of what one thinks of Moore's claims, positions, or politics, he can't be described as a boring or unfocused filmmaker. 2016, on the other hand, comes off as the incoherent ravings of a maniac who's projected his own familial/cultural baggage onto the President of the United States.

The film begins with a condensed version of D'Souza's life story, who grew up in India and moved to America as a teenager. He attended Dartmouth, where he landed a writing gig on the university's conservative newspaper. In the next few decades, he worked for the Reagan White House and a number of Republican think tanks--all leading up to the publication of is 2010 book, The Roots of Obama's Rage, on which 2016 is based.

D'Souza talks excitedly of America, and recalls with great passion a debate he had with Jesse Jackson on its imperialist nature. He asserts that Jackson can't appreciate all the wonderful things about America because he was born here, and therefore grew up nitpicking the prosperity that every other country aspires to. This is the first case of the director's strange conjectures. It's also the tamest.

After a brief and bizarre tribute to Ronald Reagan's presidency--which ends with a presumption that, at the end of his second term, Americans were looking for an inspirational figure to lead them--we skip right over the Bush/Clinton/Bush Jr. years to the election of Barack Obama. D'Souza trots out a number of well-worn memes, namely that no one knew anything about candidate Obama's mysterious past, and that he beat John McCain primarily because voters were afraid of telling their grandchildren that they voted against a black guy.**

D'Souza and his co-director/screenwriter John Sullivan assemble their thesis by focusing on the "mysterious past" angle. We learn that Barack Sr. was a globe-trotting poon hound who had, I believe, five wives in is lifetime (including the President's mother) and many more kids. Through animated line-and-circle diagrams, we're taken on a Genesis-like tour of spouses, children, and continents, all interspersed with current-events trivia. I thought little of this until I realized that D'Souza and Sullivan were either being cute or planting seeds--particularly with their connecting of Kenya's 1963 liberation from Great Britain and Barack Sr.'s 1964 divorce from Obama's mother (the implication being that the man and his nation both won their freedom at roughly the same time).

We travel around the world, as D'Souza attempts to piece together Obama's guiding principles by interviewing the people who knew him growing up. He fails in this regard, landing only a chat with a childhood teacher and a half-brother named George--who hadn't seen Barack since childhood. With nothing to go on, the filmmakers bring on more talking heads. One is a man of mixed race, who talks in generalities about racial identity. The other is a shrink who goes on at length about how boys with absentee fathers often take on the ideologies of these missing men during their development. Both offer fascinating theories that are wholly based on speculation and unsubstantiated data. You see, at no point in the movie does D'Souza actually interview Barack Obama.

It's not clear that he looks to interviews the President may have conducted either, to find out the answers to his big questions. The closest we get to the source is a series of audio excerpts from Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father. But even those have been cut-and-pasted into D'Souza and Sullivan's narrative construct in ways that may or may not be fair. I could craft any number of theories about Obama's daddy issues, using the same technique, and they would carry just as much weight as the ones presented here. Strike that: mine would carry greater weight by default, as I have evidence of having actually talked with the man.

I'd like to rewind to the George Obama interview, as it's the one scene in 2016 that doesn't jibe with the rest of the movie--which is to say that it's compelling and intellectually honest. D'Souza reads about George living in an African slum and arranges to meet with him. George shows up to the park bench interview wearing a crisp shirt and cool demeanor--a tougher-looking version of his older half-brother. It's clear by D'Souza's line of questioning that he's trying to railroad his subject; he asks many variations on the same question: "Doesn't it bother you that the leader of the free world is a member of your family, and yet he's done nothing to support you?"

George's answers are concise, polite, and wholly unnerving to the interviewer. He says Barack likely has more important things to deal with than the welfare of a distant, adult relative, and that the work he's doing globally will likely benefit George in the long run.

Frankly, I'm shocked that this segment was left in, as it undercuts much of the filmmakers' thesis. D'Souza and Sullivan want desperately to paint Barack Obama as the same secretly angry, anti-colonialist radical that his father was said to have been, even though there's no evidence to support this in his voting record, official statements, or public appearances. By their logic, George, who had the same absentee father and likely a much more unfortunate upbringing, should also be a crazed, jealous, militant. But that doesn't appear to be the case at all.

Since we're on the subject of poor filmmaking, let's talk about focus. I don't mean narrative focus; I'm talking about the audience's ability to clearly see images on a movie screen. I counted two instances where the film was out of focus. I thought the first might have been a projector issue; surely, a nationally released documentary wouldn't be so amateurish as to contain a fuzzy scene. But the second occurrence is unmistakable, and unmistakably part of the movie. It plays as a botched artistic choice that serves no purpose except to mess with 2016's target audience: old people with bad eyes and worse hearts.

Sorry, that was a cheap shot. But by film's end, I genuinely wondered who the hell this movie was made for. I doubt progressives will pay to see it, as they don't want to feed the evil Republican machine; the elusive "swing voters", it could be argued, don't pay enough attention to the world around them to even understand half of what's discussed in the movie; conservatives have already made 2016 a modest hit, but I imagine many of them leaving the theatre confused: satisfied that they've seen a big-screen anti-Obama movie, but unsure how to explain to anyone else just what the filmmakers were getting at.

Honestly, I had no idea myself until the movie's closing moments, when D'Souza's narration gets the same uncalled-for, ominous tone as Bill Maher's at the end of Religulous. He posits that Obama's second-term grand plan is to completely abolish America's nuclear program in an effort to leave us powerless against a global coalition of Muslim extremists called "The United States of Islam". This is the sum of the previous eighty-plus minutes of armchair psychiatry surrounding the President's unconventional childhood and early adult life. Obama's trip to visit the grave of his father two decades ago, we're told, cemented his belief that he was destined to ascend to power through duplicitous means and bring about the end of democracy.

I wonder if D'Souza holds everyone he knows accountable for the things they believed in their 20s?

There's a wealth of non-speculation-based issues with which one might construct a documentary critical of Barack Obama. I sure as hell am not voting for him, but 2016 is so shoddy, petty, and blatantly stupid that I almost became a supporter out of protest. D'Souza and Sullivan set themselves up as the only people who fully understand the threat a sitting President poses to our planet's very existence. Yet they squander every opportunity to back up their wild assertions with evidence, resulting in a Christopher Guest-worthy specumentary that would be downright hilarious if it weren't so sad.

*This is also true of the film's Web site.

**No one raises the question, "Why did this same fear of fictitious familial tribunals not sweep Jackson and Al Sharpton into the White House?"