DVD Review: 2016: Obama’s America

2016: Obama's America is the most successful documentary of 2012. It's also a sloppy polemic that preaches to the choir. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


“LOVE HIM OR HATE HIM,” the DVD box for Dinesh D’Souza’s and John Sullivan’s incendiary documentary shouts, “YOU DON’T KNOW HIM.” 2016: Obama’s America is currently the most financially successful documentary of the year. It taps into all of the anti-Obama arguments you have heard on FOX News, and posits a dangerous psychological portrait of the president; namely that his association with a few dangerous political schools of thought – mostly handed to him through his Kenyan father, as well as others – will, if re-elected in November, slowly assemble a weak socialist nation ripe for the crumbling. It doesn’t openly tell you not to vote for Obama, and Mitt Romney’s name is never mentioned, but it does seem to be making the argument that a vote for Obama is a vote for a mind twisted by Communism.

It’s polemic, yes, full of specious arguments. For instance, 2016 spends a good deal of its brief 90 minutes tracing Obama’s connections to unsavory types, including some people who belonged to the US Communist party, some radical left-wing students he met in college, and even his notoriously distant family members, as solid evidence that he secretly harbors anti-American principals. I would argue that anyone who has the wherewithal to be involved in politics on any level (from school board members to White House interns) probably doesn’t have fundamentally anti-American principals. 2016 also makes a lot of noise with notions of Colonialism, and compares, in vague ways, America’s current political state to once-colonized nations like India and Indonesia. I’m not exactly sure what the anti-Colonialist sentiment was meant to imply, but, thanks to the blunt and obvious filmmaking, I was assured that something horrible was going on.

As the film’s narrator, D’Souza stages 2016 as a psychological analysis. While it’s clear that he disapproves of Obama and of the left wing in general, he employs that obnoxiously calm stance of claiming to be confused by what he sees, rather than disapproving. Say what you will of Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (a film comparable to this in terms of its polemical thrust, albeit far more skilled and entertaining), it at least had its intentions on its sleeve. 2016 spends more time giving calm tut-tuts about Obama’s policies than outright screeds, all based on a mock mind analysis, and based largely on audio excerpts from Obama’s autobiography Dreams from My Father (“Notice that it’s not called Dreams of my Father…” D’Souza meaningfully intones). The problem with this approach is it’s not really making an argument so much as a decrying, nor is it really interested in analysis. It’s a polemic through-and-through, and its gentle “lessons” feel disingenuous as a result.

What’s more the film feels kind of lazy, not just in its arguments, but in its filmmaking. I’m not an economist, so I can’t tell you exactly how the economy works, or why certain policies work and others don’t, but simply declaring that “well, things are totally worse now that Obama’s president” seems to whitewash the complexities of the issue. 2016 shows us some stats and stuff about how bad the economy is, but doesn’t really point out how all of that is directly Obama’s fault. Indeed, no word of the housing market, the banking crisis, or any fascinating dissection of the economy. 2016 just seems to say, very simply, that things are bad, and Obama’s to blame.

About the lazy filmmaking: This is a documentary that stages recreations, and then reuses them several times throughout the film. I understand the film was made on a budget, but it’s pandering to see that same shot of a young actor pouring dirt on his dead father’s grave.

The arguments that do stick, however, only toe party lines. Obama, for instance, has given a few speeches about nuclear disarmament, and reducing the number of bombs the US has (which is a lot). D’Souza shows this footage with tense music, and shocked tones. D’Souza clearly feels that the US should indeed have its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent, and that disarmament is dangerous. Leading by example be damned.

The problem with most political documentaries of this stripe, and of 2016 in particular, is that they play out less like reportage of fact, or some sort of serious analysis, and more like expanded 30-second TV spots that are unavoidable during voting season. 2016 has no interest in politics, it has no interest in the way the nation works, and it’s not going to spend any time looking at the complex machine that is the American government. All it wants is for you to not vote for Obama come November for goodness’ sake. No peacemaking, communication, or attempts to reach across the aisle here. This is a hand-wringing film. If you weren’t planning on voting for Obama already, and you just want to find a mind that agrees with yours (and let’s be honest, we all crave that), then this film might be for you. If you’re an undecided voter (are there many?) it may sway you, I suppose, even though it’s pretty vague. If you’re pro-Obama, this film will strike you as strident and argumentative.

By all accounts, though, it’s not a very good film.

The DVD contains no extra features at all. Odd.