Well, fair’s fair. George W. Bush got Michael Moore and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Now Barack Obama gets Dinesh D’Souza and “2016: Obama’s America.” Both films are wildly partisan attack documentaries made by wildly partisan and generally annoying polemicists (D’Souza is more personable, actually, than Moore). The difference is that Moore is a talented filmmaker. This is D’Souza’s first involvement with filmmaking. Presumably the nuts-and-bolts stuff was handled by John Sullivan, who co-wrote and codirected the film, which is based on D’Souza’s 2010 bestseller, “The Roots of Obama’s Rage.” Sullivan previously worked on some shorts and produced the 2008 Ben Stein documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”
The film, which aims to locate the president’s political roots in his family background and personal history, is very slickly made. Viewers who go see it will presumably already have their minds made up about Obama. But at least they won’t have to fight to stay awake. The editing is nonstop. The varying of formats is impressive — interviews, news footage, photographs, lots (and lots) of scenes of D’Souza going about his business — and the views of Hawaii, Indonesia, and Kenya (D’Souza visits all three places) are diverting. The film’s budget has been reported to be $2.5 million, but there’s nothing bargain basement about how “2016” looks.
Viewers may do some headscratching. This can be a very strange movie. Two of those interviews D’Souza conducts by phone — so we cut back and forth between him talking into his phone and his subject talking into his own phone. There are numerous dramatizations. The one of D’Souza’s college days at Dartmouth looks goofy. Goofier still is another meant to demonstrate the current state of US race relations. Two dangerous-looking white guys walk away from a black guy, who appears to know them, when he joins them at a bar. It’s OK, though: They come back a minute later with a birthday cake for him. Weirdest of all is the choice of music for a brief segment on the Reagan presidency (D’Souza served in the Reagan White House): Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind.” Could this be an attempt at equal time?
“2016: Obama’s America” is really three movies. The first third of the documentary might more accuractely have been called “The Dinesh D’Souza Story.” He parallels himself to Obama in a way that would be endearing if it didn’t seem slightly megalomaniacal. They’re the same age. They’re of mixed-race backgrounds. They’re Ivy Leaguers. They also married in the same year. The implication is that D’Souza somehow has some special insight into Obama as a result.
That implied insight informs the next movie, which might be called “The Kenyan Candidate.” “Obama is embracing his father’s failed Third World collectivism,” D’Souza announces. He reads from Obama’s book “Dreams From My Father” and also plays selections from the audiobook version, which Obama narrates. The fact that Obama barely knew his father clinches the case, as D’Souza sees it. Dad’s absence allowed the future president to idealize him and internalize his views. D’Souza quotes from a 1965 article in which Obama senior supported tax rates of up to 100 percent. “Is this what President Obama means by paying our fair share?,” D’Souza asks.
We get reenactments from the elder Obama’s life, as well as one of Obama’s visit to his grave — which, politics aside, is indicative of D’Souza’s strange blend of contempt for Obama and identification with him. To think it proper to stage such an intensely personal moment in an individual’s life — any individual, whether or not he’s a public figure, whether or not you oppose him politically — verges on the grotesque and assumes a superiority to that individual which in this particular case lies somewhere between lese-majesté and delusions of grandeur.
The film becomes increasingly overt in its opposition to Obama, as insinuation gives way to accusation and assertion. The final 25 minutes or so — the third movie — is like an episode of “The Colbert Report” with D’Souza as guest host. D’Souza’s manner throughout “2016” is measured and polished (he has a lovely speaking voice). But now in content, if not form, he approaches rant. Who knew that if Obama is reelected “the Middle East transforms itself into the United States of Islam”? The movie concludes with a title card: “Love him. Hate him. Now you know him.” Well, as the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.