Analyzing the President
By Carl Kozlowski
In June 2004, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore released Fahrenheit 9/11, a devastating and comedic attack on incumbent President George W. Bush that was designed to deliver a knockout blow to his re-election hopes. The film focused on the events of 9/11 and the buildup to the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and went on to become the highest-grossing documentary of all time, with over $120 million in business in the U.S. alone.
While the president went on to win that election, the film could perhaps be seen as the first blow of many that wound up making Bush’s remaining time in office miserable. Now, the Right is striking back with the new film 2016: Obama’s America, a documentary that seeks to forecast what current President Obama’s plans are for his second term in office by shining a light on his past and the influences that shaped him.
The film is written, narrated and hosted by leading conservative author and former Reagan White House advisor Dinesh D’Souza, and that fact goes a long way towards making this film appear to be even-handed. D’Souza takes pains to point out early in the film that there are many parallels between his own life and Obama’s—such as extensive overseas childhood experiences (D’Souza is from India, and Obama lived in Malaysia for four years as a boy) and paths up the ladder of American political success. Such factors help defuse what would surely have been heavy criticism if the filmmaker driving the project was a white American.
D’Souza, however, wonders how such similar backgrounds led to such divergent worldviews, with D’Souza an unapologetic America-first guy and the president trying to teach us to see America in a way that is more blended into the overall outside family of nations. And so, the film’s first half focuses extensively on Obama’s childhood through college days and in particular on his father’s extremely distant relationship with him.
D’Souza posits that this focus is vital because Obama himself wrote a national bestselling book called Dreams From My Father, in which he describes his search for identity and meaning in the wake of not having a normal level of guidance from him. In fact, D’Souza plays actual sound clips from Obama’s audio-book, while also making trips to Kenya— where Obama’s father lived after abandoning Barack and his mother shortly after his birth—and Indonesia, where Obama spent time after his mother remarried to a Malaysian man.
Along the way, D’Souza interviews Obama’s Kenyan half-brother and aunt, as well as friends of Obama’s mother and a radical elderly man who was friends with Obama’s grandfather and thus held great sway with Obama as a boy. The combination of these influences, and in particular of a literal card-carrying Communist named Frank Marshall Davis, led Obama to have a deep and abiding distaste for British colonialism and— according to D’Souza—the idea of America’s own immense worldwide influence.
2016 spends nearly its entire first hour on this exploration of Obama’s past, and it provides an intriguing look into a man who was largely unknown until he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. The filmmakers—including co-directors John Sullivan and D’Souza and executive producer Gerald L. Molen, a frequent Spielberg collaborator— wisely avoid mudslinging attacks like questioning Obama’s birth certificate or school records and also appear fair and sympathetic to his rough childhood with the non-judgmental tone D’Souza utilizes.
It is in the last half hour, however, that the film shifts its focus to Obama’s actions thus far and likely policies in a second term. While D’Souza maintains his neutral-sounding yet inquisitive tone, it is here that he clearly wonders if Obama is purposely tanking the economy and driving the national debt to dangerous levels, and also shows potentially disturbing footage that includes Obama whispering to a Russian leader that he’ll be able to extensively bargain with them after his assumed re-election.
This nation is so divided that most people will probably know well in advance whether they want to see 2016 or not. But even Obama fans might find interesting insights into the president’s worldview and that while they might disagree with it, at least the film is worth seeing to keep up at the water cooler while not feeling insulted by its methods.