The problem with Dinesh D’Souza is that he only thinks he loves America. The opportunistic conservative pundit, author, and filmmaker has a fetishistic reverence for the ideals upon which this country was founded, but consistently fails to understand that experiments—particularly great ones—have trials in order to challenge their hypotheses. His documentaries are lost in the space between theory and practice, resulting in dangerously anti-intellectual propaganda.
For D’Souza, a first-generation immigrant whose previous documentary (the remarkably popular 2016: Obama’s America) gave him millions of good reasons to love his adoptive country, America is an infallible empire that exists to shine its light upon the world. Those who would question it are involved in a vast anti-colonialist conspiracy to hijack the nation away from its fundamental Christian ethos.
The central premise of 2016 was that Obama, were he to win re-election, would put his nefarious anti-colonialist doctrine into action, dropping his mask of appeasement in order to finally subvert America’s glorious ideals. History has proven D’Souza’s prediction to be little more than empty fear mongering, and yet his new film—in which he asks audiences to heed his latest warning without a hint of remorse for the speciousness of his prior claims—is so half-baked that it makes 2016 feel like an Edward R. Murrow report.
Graced with a hilariously definitive title, America is astonishingly facile, a film comprised entirely of straw man arguments. Interpreting Obama’s “You didn’t build that” soundbite as proof that “Incredible as it may seem, there are people in America who want a world without America,” D’Souza’s film amounts to the petulant response of a child. Beginning with a competently shot glimpse at General Washington leading his troops in the fall of 1777, America imagines an alternate history in which the nation’s first president was assassinated by a sniper’s musket, which D’Souza assumes would instantly end the war. Cue images of American landmarks disintegrating into dust, The Statue Of Liberty crumbling into oblivion as D’Souza’s voiceover asks questions like: “What if Hitler got the atomic bomb first?” It really makes you think.
Unfortunately, D’Souza and co-director John Sullivan lack the ambition to see this idea through, pivoting instead into a dry rebuttal of five indictments against the United States. They’re hellbent on pacifying the American guilt they believe was responsible for Obama’s election, desperately attempting to assuage the national conscience about the evils of colonialism, capitalism, and racism. Did the U.S. steal Mexico in the Mexican War? No, we retired its debt and gave it back! Does capitalism deny the American dream? No, it’s more expensive to make a hamburger than it is to buy one at McDonald’s! (Seriously, that’s D’Souza’s argument, complete with a chilling comedy bit featuring a legion of D’Souza clones manning a fast food restaurant). Was segregation wrong? Um, okay that one was pretty bad, but some people were against it! And look, this one black woman became a millionaire! America is essentially the “not all men” of political propaganda.
D’Souza’s everyman approach clashes with the hubris required to engage in an argument with Noam Chomsky, and his hubris clashes with his decision to delegate arguments to irrelevant cultural references. (To begin his attack on Howard Zinn for collecting various indictments into a single narrative of American shame, D’Souza trots out a clip of Matt Damon name-checking the dead historian in Good Will Hunting). It’s admirable that D’Souza is so willing to engage people who don’t share his perspective, but his editing and the instructive music with which he pushes it suggest that he’s not particularly interested in what they have to say.
And then, after 78 minutes of defending America’s involvement in Vietnam and suggesting that colonialism only fails when it doesn’t last for long enough, D’Souza finally gets to the point of this empty-headed money grab: Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist. Connecting the politician to community organizer Saul Alinsky via a very convincing series of lines, D’Souza argues that Clinton intends to radicalize the White House and that her big government vision is to use the NSA to transform America into a giant panopticon. Other than the suggestion that Clinton is responsible for the death of Aaron Schwartz, D’Souza’s accusations are nearly identical to those he’s previously leveled at Obama, further weakening the integrity of his claims.
It’s worth noting that D’Souza does mention his recent arrest for illegal campaign contributions, brushing it off as part of the documentary’s rousing climax with a “let’s go after the real criminals” attitude. It’s the tactic of a raconteur, not a filmmaker, and one that provides a perfectly fitting conclusion to this imbecilic and often painfully dull embarrassment. D’Souza’s film is cut off at the knees because he fundamentally fails to understand that being an American isn’t about bowing to the ideas upon which this country was founded. It’s about protecting them, nurturing them, and applying them to the modern world, even (or especially) when it’s inconvenient to do so.