Last evening I was invited to a private screening of “2016: Obama’s America”, which is based on two books by conservative author Dinesh D’Souza. As a conservative myself and someone who appreciates a good story, well-told, I found there was much to appreciate about this film. Unfortunately, I came away from it wondering who the intended audience of the film was, and whether the movie strayed into moral and logical paradoxes which make it impossible for me to recommend. This review will probably not win me any friends on either side of the aisle, but there you are, so let’s dive in.
Despite its title, this film is not really about what America will be like 2016 if Mr. Obama wins a second term this November. Instead, it is an exploration into the question of who our 44th President is, deep down. While D’Souza does include some discussion about what might happen at the end of a second Obama Administration, the bulk of the film is spent establishing some of the possible motivating factors which brought Mr. Obama to where he is today, pointing to some of the aspects of his views that may have their roots in Mr. Obama’s family background. D’Souza then allows us to draw our own conclusions about what an Obama second term would be, based on these background observations.
For one thing Mr. Obama was lied to in the early part of his life about his father, as becomes very clear in this film, even though the imaginary father he created for himself was something he sought in his future relationships. His family and later he himself associated with people whose political views would horrify most of us, and these people left an indelible impact on how Mr. Obama sees the world around him. The portrait that emerges from D’Souza’s film is of someone who has a massive chip on his shoulder, with something to prove to himself and to others, i.e. that he was more than just the illegitimate son of a Kenyan leftist Lothario who never amounted to much of anything. If you are at all uncertain as to the question of whether Mr. Obama grew up surrounded by some very deeply disturbing political ideas, this film will put that question to rest.
Yet to what extent has that influence shaped Mr. Obama’s views on domestic and foreign policy? This never becomes entirely clear, since D’Souza understandably finds Mr. Obama’s family somewhat more interesting than Mr. Obama himself. In one of the more fascinating parts of the film for example, D’Souza sits down for an interview with one of Mr. Obama’s half-brothers, George Obama, a man who somewhat eerily has many of the same expressions and gestures of the President. Unlike Mr. Obama, his younger brother seems more of a practitioner of realpolitik, pointing out that Kenya was economically and politically more advanced than South Korea when it achieved independence, but had subsequently slipped into being a third world country. George Obama, however, does not believe his older brother owes him anything, for since the President is off running the world, he sees himself as benefiting by extension, as a citizen of the world, from what Mr. Obama does.
Of course the problem is that Mr. Obama has not done very much to improve the world over the past four years, despite his by-default mandate to do so. There must be something terribly difficult for Mr. Obama to have been fighting or looking down his nose at the establishment all his life, and to suddenly wake up one day and realize that now, he IS the establishment – for if we are talking about being at the top of the secular pecking order on this planet, POTUS is as high as you can go. One of the problems faced by those who are both opportunists and idealists, as Mr. Obama unquestionably is, is that once you get to the position of power and influence that you hoped you would, people will expect you to actually do something. The problem faced by this country is one of economic downturn and geo-political uncertainty, but the battles – or as D’Souza puts it, “the “dreams” – of Mr. Obama have more to do with righting perceived wrongs outside of the state he governs, for in his mind that state created or exacerbated these problems.
That being said, there are a number of problems with this film which, while they might be lost on a general audience, caused me some concern. There is for example an oft-repeated scene of a youth – presumably meant to represent Mr. Obama himself – kneeling down in front of the actual tomb of Mr. Obama’s father. The actor picks up a handful of dirt, and strews it across the top of Barack Senior’s grave, presumably recreating something Barack Junior did or might have done. Whatever you think of Mr. Obama, I find it morally difficult to justify filming such a scene. Imagine if the grave were that of your own father, and you can understand what I mean.
Another issue has to do something which D’Souza takes great pains to establish in his narrative: Mr. Obama comes from somewhere that is not America. D’Souza is not a conspiracy theorist, so those who believe that Obama was not born in the United States, or hold that 9/11 was a plot by the Bush Administration, or run a tinfoil millinery business will be very disappointed. Yet what D’Souza does in the film is to show Indonesia and Kenya, where Mr. Obama grew up and where his father’s family hails from, respectively, as places not unlike D’Souza’s native India, with scenes of people picking through gigantic mountains of garbage, and with filth, poverty, and anti-Western viewpoints everywhere.
And herein lies a problem with D’Souza’s argument, or at least his presentation of it. The filmmaker points out how much he and Mr. Obama are alike, from the year of their birth, the childhood they experienced, their academic careers, and so on. However D’Souza later draws the conclusion that Mr. Obama’s America cannot be what most Americans think of as America, because Mr. Obama’s background is nothing like that of ordinary Americans. Yet arguably by that logic, if Mr. Obama cannot understand America because, according to D’Souza, his experience and understanding is so foreign to the average American, then neither can D’Souza understand America, since he, too, grew up in an environment nothing like that which most Americans experience.
Finally, there is the question that one cannot help but ask oneself when leaving the cinema at the conclusion of this film. Who is the intended audience for this piece: is this meant for the masses, or is this a party piece for the elites? Whatever impression the posters and trailers for the film may give, “2016” is not a populist propaganda documentary, a la Michael Moore, so there is little in the way of red meat. For the average viewer who has made a limited study of history and political theory surrounding topics such as imperialism, distributism, and so on, I wonder whether the film will come off as too elitist for mainstream consumption. This itself is a problematic conclusion, for leftist elites will not change their allegiance to Mr. Obama, and conservative elites already disdain him, thus leaving the film with nowhere to go.
Of course the reader will have to make up his own mind if and when he chooses to see the film. As a storyteller, D’Souza does a brilliant job of weaving together the threads of his narrative, in a way which anyone who appreciates a complex script or novel will appreciate: you have to stick with it until the end, but then everything gets wrapped up nice and neat, with a bow on top. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama’s background is a strange and, at times, rather disturbing tale indeed. Yet at the same time I found this to be perhaps too specialist a film, with a few too many questionable judgments made by the filmmaker, for me to unreservedly recommend.