A critical look forward
The controversial '2016: Obama's America' explores how president's youth led to his current policies
By Carl Kozlowski 08/30/2012
In June 2004, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore released “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a devastating and comedic attack on incumbent President George W. Bush designed to deliver a knockout blow to his re-election hopes. The film focused on the events of 9/11 and the buildup to the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and went on to become the highest-grossing documentary of all time, with over $120 million in business in the US alone.
While the president went on to win that election, the film could perhaps be seen as the first blow of many that wound up making Bush’s remaining time in office miserable. Now, the Right is striking back with the new film “2016: Obama’s America,” a documentary that seeks to forecast what current President Obama’s plans are for his second term in office by shining a light on his past and the influences that shaped him.
The film is written, narrated and hosted by leading conservative author and former Reagan White House adviser Dinesh D’Souza, and that fact goes a long way toward making this film seem even-handed. D’Souza takes pains to point out early in the film that there are many parallels between his own life and Obama’s — both had extensive overseas childhood experiences (D’Souza is from India, and Obama lived in Malaysia for four years as a boy) and both ascended the ladder of American political success. Such factors help defuse what would surely have been heavy criticism if the filmmaker driving the project had been a white American.
D’Souza, however, wonders how such similar backgrounds led to such divergent worldviews, with himself being an unapologetic America-first guy and the president trying to teach us to see America as one member in a family of nations. And so, the film’s first half focuses extensively on Obama’s childhood through college days and, in particular, on his father’s extremely distant relationship with him.
D’Souza posits that this focus is vital because Obama himself wrote a national bestselling book called “Dreams From My Father,” in which he describes his search for identity and meaning in the wake of not having a normal level of guidance from his father. In fact, D’Souza plays actual sound clips from Obama’s audio-book, while also making trips to Kenya, where Obama’s father lived after abandoning Barack and his mother shortly after his birth, and Indonesia, where Obama spent time after his mother married a Malaysian man.
Along the way, D’Souza interviews Obama’s Kenyan half-brother and aunt, as well as friends of Obama’s mother and a radical elderly man who was friends with Obama’s grandfather and thus held great sway with Obama as a boy. The combination of these influences, and in particular of a literal card-carrying Communist named Frank Marshall Davis, led Obama to have a deep and abiding distaste for British colonialism and, according to D’Souza, the idea of America’s own immense worldwide influence.
“2016” spends nearly its entire first hour on this exploration of Obama’s past, and it provides an intriguing look into a man who was largely unknown until he was elected to the US Senate in 2004. The filmmakers — including co-directors John Sullivan and D’Souza and executive producer Gerald L. Molen, a frequent Spielberg collaborator — wisely avoid mudslinging attacks, like questioning Obama’s birth certificate or school records, and appear fair and sympathetic to his rough childhood, given the non-judgmental tone D’Souza uses throughout the film.
It is in the last half hour, however, that the focus shifts to Obama’s actions thus far and what will likely be his policies during a second term. While D’Souza maintains his neutral-sounding yet inquisitive tone, it is here that he clearly wonders if Obama is purposely tanking the economy and driving the national debt to dangerous levels, and also shows potentially disturbing footage that includes Obama whispering to a Russian leader that he’ll be able to extensively bargain with them after his assumed re-election.
While “2016” scored an impressive $6 million at the box office this past weekend and is likely to keep raking in bucks at a pace that will make it a solid hit, it is not the barnstorming, fire-breathing yet funny attack that Moore adopted in “Fahrenheit 9/11.” As such, it may not score as big in the zeitgeist, but the filmmakers deserve praise for treating what they saw as a serious subject in a serious fashion.
This nation is so divided that most people will probably know well in advance whether they want to see “2016” or not. But even Obama fans might find interesting insights into the president’s worldview, and while they might disagree with it, it’s not insulting and is worth seeing, if only to keep up at the water cooler.