Opening in 1777 with the battlefield death of Gen. George Washington — on Sept. 11, naturally — conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary takes the provocative idea of alternative history but uses it in the service of a befuddled, reenactment-filled entreaty for the nation’s survival. D’Souza, who narrates and codirects with his 2016: Obama’s America collaborator John Sullivan, presents five indictments of ”American shame” and then plays intellectual Twister in an attempt to forgive the USA its trespasses. Native Americans were not murdered, he says, but simply perished from white man’s diseases. Slavery was bad, he says, but how come we don’t focus on the abolition of slavery rather than dwell on slavey itself?
Despite impossibly reductionist logic such as that, D’Souza knows what he’s doing. Among voices on the right, he is considerably schooled in points of view contrary to his own and has been unafraid to joust with the likes of Bill Maher and the late Christopher Hitchens. Disappointingly, in America he is pitching his message solely to an explicitly conservative audience who are hungry for patriotic grist. He has no interest in challenging their worldview or in persuading a non-Republican demographic to his cause.
After a melodramatic mid-film critique of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, D’Souza turns his attention to the even juicier Saul Alinsky, the community organizer whom he paints as a demon of the left. Boogeyman music accompanies the reenactment scene where the vampiric Alisnky introduces himself to an eager Hillary Rodham (Clinton) in her college cafeteria. But D’Souza won’t go near the fact that Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals — Rule No. 8: ”Keep the pressure on, never let up” — has become an instruction manual for the right wing as well, including the Tea Party and, of course, D’Souza himself.
Alinksy’s Rule No. 4 is ”Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules,” and you can hear the smile in D’Souza’s voice when he introduces a lengthy clip of Bono from a 2012 speech at Georgetown, as the lefty rockstar proclaims ”America has constantly been on the side of what’s right” and ”America is one of the greatest ideas in human history.” D’Souza also delves into the wonkier tale of progressive icon Aaron Swartz, summarizing accurately how the Obama Justice Department’s witch hunt against the Internet guru for copying academic papers led to the young man’s suicide. In the next breath, D’Souza takes on the recent IRS scandal and dubiously connects it to his own arrest for campaign finance violations, replete with staged shots showing himself in handcuffs as treacly piano plays on the soundtrack.
D’Souza’s soft, non-ranting narration and workingman shuffle is cribbed directly from Michael Moore. A recurring image in the film has him standing with his shoulders slumped outside the gates of the White House; it’s there to emphasize, exactly the way Moore does, his outsider status. Neither man is immune to sentimentality, yet when D’Souza ends his film with a three-minute music video celebrating the country’s exceptional values — cue cornfields and Ronald Reagan — set to the tune of Phillip Phillips’s ”Home,” the message is clear: D’Souza’s America is an expression of feel-good capitalism, not of art.
And that fits the movie’s tone. The documentary has grossed an admirable $15 million since early July, and audiences across most of country have burst into standing ovations when the credits roll. Lionsgate, however, its Canadian-American distributor, elected to open it in only one theater for only one week in New York City, where it earned next to nothing before dashing out of town. There’s no doubt that D’Souza loves America, but he loves it much in the same way that we all do: According to a map of his own design. C