Imagine how much chatter you'd be hearing about Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan's documentary 2016 if it were about George W. Bush's America rather than Barack Obama's.
I'm not just talking about Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which was lauded as "potent and infuriating" by Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman and praised for its large "scope" and skillful "means" by the New Yorker's David Denby. Countless Bush's Brains and Outfoxeds and Bush Family Fortunes got wide distribution and rave reviews during the eight corpse-strewn and impoverishing years of the George W. Bush's administration.
2016 is made at a higher level of production than any of those films. It treats its subject with much greater fairness than any of those films. It is arguably a bigger box office draw than any of them: Entertainment Weekly reports that 2016: Obama's America is earning $6,326.50 per screen in limited release, but that's only half the story. You can do better than that per screen and still not get a wide release. 2016, however, enjoys an excellent distribution and PR network and has opened in major media markets (The New York Times' review focused on the audience reaction at a screening.) Today 2016: Obama's America expands to 1,075 theaters around the country.
The film is compelling because it aims not to entertain but to educate. What they lack in the way of Michael Moore's wit D'Souza and Sullivan (who co-wrote and co-directed) make up for through confidence in their own story.
D'Souza and Sullivan's crew travels the world to trace President Obama's journey through youth. D'Souza, the author of The Roots of Obama's Rage (on which this film is based) and a Dartmouth-educated public intellectual with family roots in India, twines his own life path around Obama's. Two actors play younger versions of D'Souza.
The film draws with great skill on Obama's autobiography Dreams From My Father, and it should be considered a vital supplement to that book, enriching Obama's childhood observations of Lolo Soetoro (Obama's Indonesian stepfather) and Frank Marshall Davis (a Hawaii-based pro-Soviet journalist friend of Obama's maternal grandfather).
In addition to complicating Obama's narrative (some captured footage of Obama going off-teleprompter while trying to make a tricky point about one of his bloated budgets is particularly rich), D'Souza aims to tell a counternarrative. What D'Souza calls his "explanatory framework" holds that the president is still possessed by his late father's anti-colonial radicalism and to a lesser extent by his grandfather's mid-century-vintage leftism. This was the attention-getting premise behind D'Souza's book, and he doesn't lack for evidence. Dreams From My Father treats Obama's college-age fascination with Frantz Fanon and his friendships with campus Marxists. Obama's extensive relationships with serial terror bomber Bill Ayers and America-damning holy man Jeremiah Wright are well known (though the film persuasively argues that the media managed to turn these into issues of style rather than content).
"How does a guy who possesses a third-world anti-American view, an ideology as remote and unrecognizable to most Americans as the capital of Kenya or Indonesia, manage to get himself elected?" D'Souza asks. "How does he sell this in Peoria?"
Again, Obama provides the answer: His book nicely explains how the ambitious young community activist made the most of garden-variety Americans' instinct to be helpful to a non-threatening outsider.
Of course, every president is a threat. D'Souza's argument is that Obama is a uniquely dangerous and insidious one. He may be right about that, but when he tries to make the case the film departs from my reality. If you believe the biggest problems with Obama are that he has not invaded Iran, attacked the Alawite regime in Syria and sufficiently supported the Queen's dominion over the Falkland Islands, this is the movie for you.
Although 2016 does treat Obama's devastating fiscal legacy, D'Souza and Sullivan's real passion is for crimes like Obama's removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the oval office. D'Souza fondly recalls his own young adulthood at the knee of President Reagan, and that archetype – the president as steward of a strong dollar and bulwark against an expansive collectivist empire – colors his assessment of the sitting president.
But this construction just doesn't fit into the hole Obama has dug. D'Souza floats the term "Debt as a weapon of mass destruction," but even the talking head he chooses to illustrate this point, former Comptroller General David Walker (1998-2008), carefully notes that the near-tripling of the national debt (from $5.6 trillion debt accumulated from George Washington through Bill Clinton to more than $15 trillion today) took place "under George Walker Bush 43 and President Barack Obama."
The theme of Obama's radical anti-Americanism is even less useful in explaining what has been (so far) his most poisonous legacy: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 (a.k.a. Obamacare), which indentures the people not to any politburo or warlord but to insurance companies. The act has now been deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. Mitt Romney, Obama's opponent in the coming election, pioneered the individual mandate that forms the core of Obamacare while he was governor of Massachusetts. Obamacare (treated very briefly in the film) in fact argues against D'Souza's biographical thesis: As a candidate Obama opposed the individual mandate, and nothing from Ayers or Barack Obama, Sr. suggests any source for this cockamamie scheme. The awfulness of Obamacare is not that it is radical but that it is precisely in the middle of the contemporary mainstream.
But the job of a film is not to have a consistently logical argument. It is to make that argument persuasively, and 2016 does so with emotional and narrative power.