Directed by: Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan
Premise: A documentary that critiques the narrative that America’s wealth and prosperity were acquired through theft and barbarism. The filmmakers offer an alternative, that America is a constructive and benevolent force in the world.
What Works: America: Imagine the World Without Her was co-directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan, who had previously worked together on 2016: Obama’s America, which purported to examine the foundations of President Barack Obama’s ideology, and this is a sequel of sorts to the 2012 documentary. Like that film, America is intended to appeal to a right wing audience that watches Fox News and listens to conservative talk radio and the filmmakers clearly understand their audience and give them what they want. This kind of documentary isn’t intended to enlighten or to even advance an argument; it exists to entertain a particular audience while reinforcing the viewers’ preexisting beliefs. On that count, America does precisely what its makers intend.
What Doesn’t: Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan’s previous collaboration had many problems (it was listed on Sounds of Cinema’s countdown of the worst movies of 2012) but for the most part 2016: Obama’s America was a competently made film. Not so in the case of America: Imagine the World Without Her. This picture fails on the rubric of basic filmmaking craft. The sound mix is terrible. The film features an obtuse music score that attempts to direct the viewer’s emotional reactions and build tension where there is none but all the music really does is drown out the narration. The visual effects of America, in which icons like Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty are digitally erased, are of the quality of a late 1990s video game. This film is edited haphazardly with visual non sequiturs in the form of miscued insert shots and random stock footage of American landscapes that have nothing to do with the topic of the film. America also includes several dramatic recreations of key figures and events from the country’s history and they frequently look ludicrous but none more so than Frederick Douglass, played by a young actor in a clumsy looking wig. But as flawed as the filmmaking may be, it’s the lame, disingenuous, and lazy argumentation of America that is its defining quality. The filmmakers would insist that this is a conservative documentary but it isn’t. The best of the conservative intellectual tradition emphasized skepticism, demanded a commitment to honest and rigorous analysis, and valued facts over kneejerk emotional reactions. The filmmakers of America present half-truths and outright lies as facts and substitute analysis with sentimentality. The very conceit of the movie is a straw man argument that gets sillier as it proceeds. According to D’Souza, some undefined group sees America as evil based on several charges: the country’s wealth was built on slavery, its borders were expanded through imperial actions, the government committed genocide against the native people, and American capitalism has failed the majority of citizens in favor of a small group of economic elites. None of these charges are ever really refuted or even meaningfully explored. Instead, the filmmakers acknowledge these things happened and then respond with anecdotal counter examples that suggests false equivalences and are presented through sentimental techniques intended to marginalize the topic. In its last third, America takes a turn for the worst. The filmmakers abandon their initial premise altogether and instead make the hysterical claim that the United States is haunted by the legacy of Saul Alinksy. The film paints Alinksy as a cult leader (D’Souza compares him to Lucifer) who was intent on destroying the country and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as adepts fulfilling his diabolical plans. The idiocy of this line of inquiry cannot be understated but it gives way to a final argument in which the filmmakers tip their hand. The ending dwells on the ever expanding powers of the national security state but only for the purpose of setting up Dinesh D’Souza as a martyr. As shown in the film, D’Souza has pled guilty to violating campaign finance laws and is facing prison time. With this movie, D’Souza positions himself as a political prisoner and the filmmakers go so far as to juxtapose imagery of D’Souza in handcuffs with a recreation of President Lincoln’s assassination. That is what America: Imagine the World Without Her is really about. All the posturing about defending America’s history and preserving its future is really a vain ruse by D’Souza to protect his public image.
Bottom Line: The filmmakers of America: Imagine the World Without Her want viewers to believe that this is a sincere and patriotic piece celebrating the country and standing up for its values and traditions. Nothing could be further from the truth. This film exists because Dinesh D’Souza has gotten egg on his face and he’s using the American flag to wipe it off.
Episode: #500 (July 20, 2014)