2016: Obama's America (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
17Oct/120

2016: Obama’s America (2012)

Every so often I'll run into a film that, no matter what the intention appears to be, plays like a complete vanity project.  Documentaries are usually the worst examples of this since you're typically dealing with the director's pet obsession.  Sometimes this is infuriating, such as in This Film Is Not Yet Rated when director Kirby Dick decides to take an extended break from artists meaningfully commenting on de facto censorship to climb around in other people's trash.

These side-tours are on display throughout the entirety of 2016: Obama's America.  Directors Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan, both pulling writing duties as well, spend roughly an hour and twenty minutes on the political equivalent of looking around in someone else's trash.  Though instead of actually poking around the intended target, they're content picking through the garbage cans of the neighbors of someone who knew President Obama a long time ago.  If this seems like a flimsy way of making a case against the current leadership, then wait until the wafer-thin four minute psychological profile of Obama as someone with abandonment and daddy issues comes in, and promptly forget it as the point is dropped the next scene.

If any of this is starting to feel familiar, that's because this is the second widely-released documentary of the year covering much the same ground.  A few weeks ago I reviewed Dreams from My Real Father, a film that skirts the line of absolute tastelessness and idiotic craft I could swear it was made as a joke.  I'm much less convinced that D'Souza and Sullivan are joking around with 2016, but I'm also a lot more bored by the results.  Handily, it would be much more fun to get drunk with friends over bad Photoshop and Communist diapers than spend one more minute listening to psychoanalysis shot through the bushes of someone's home.

Watch with baited-breath as this documentary about Obama centers on a debate D'Souza had once.

Topically, both films do cover roughly the exact same ground by asking roughly the same question, "Who is Obama?"  This is a fine question to ask but 2016 does little to formulate a response and is bogged down by a self-serving framework.  D'Souza is the talking headpiece throughout the film, travelling to the same places that Obama did and attempting to piece together his vision of what he thinks the man to be.  He frames the entire movie around how he could come to America, be born in the same year as Obama no less, and come to completely different conclusions about its people.  The sustained "Duh" you may feel encouraged to let out at the idea that people of even slightly different backgrounds turn out differently is stifled by the fact that the film is at least not a total disaster.

Even if you take a cursory glance you'll see it is surprisingly well put together, especially given the efforts of its recent company.  D'Souza and Sullivan do take advantage of the seemingly inexhaustible travel budget to venture around the world, and the camera's sense of awareness of the surroundings makes for a pleasing travelogue at times.  Pleasant photography aside, they at least try to keep things visually interesting.  They film D'Souza's frequent interviews in different styles which range from a static camera over a simple discussion to rapid cutting between participants in a frantic phone discussion.

Unfortunately, that style is where the positive points begin and end.  The fact that there is some degree of craft involved makes the argument style of free-form association that much more difficult to follow.  At least with Dreams, the horrible craft lent a nightmarish plausibility to the whole affair that eventually deflates into near-parody.  With 2016 the more noticeable attempt at trying to connect D'Souza and Sullivan's pet theory of the moment, that Obama is fueled by anti-Colonialism, into anti-Capitalist / White / Democracy arguments a lot more difficult to swallow since we're actually given more time to think about the information being presented.

This "Blurry behind the head who is speaking?" shot is just one of many confused, if noteworthy, attempts at stylistic variety. Less confusing but far creepier is the "I'm shooting my subject from behind the bushes" camerawork.

It's much better to try and confuse the audience with an overabundance of information.  Instead we've got minutes-long treatises talking heads pulling a reverse-Freud asking about Obama's father, back to South Africa for more meandering on anti-Colonialism, and then a few speeches over still photographs for good measure.  The languid pace makes the arguments seem less obtuse, but the connections are tenuous at best and treading on ground that has been recently tilled.  It makes me long for an Oliver Stone treatment of the same material, free association and all.

In the end it's just another seemingly harmless and incredibly boring documentary that doesn't want you to really think critically for a second.  It's all in the presentation, and since it makes the attempt to be calm and authoritative mayhap someone will use it as a citation in the future.  I hope not, especially given the pitiful way Frank Marshall Davis is again shoehorned into a vast conspiracy.  But despite all the placid nonsense there is one facet of the film that troubled me greatly.

Much is made of Obama's family in the film.  D'Souza makes an incredibly awkward attempt at getting Obama's half-brother to admit that he wishes Obama would assist, when all he can say in response is "We each have our own families and responsibilities."  This is just bad framing, but then D'Souza and Sullivan show a clip several times of a figure putting dirt over the grave of Obama's grandfather.  I sincerely hope that they used a "stunt headstone," because if they decided to make a visual metaphor out of a fake Obama burying his own name, then they deserve every bit to have this film fade into oblivion.

One day, we will get a potent examination of Obama's failures, just not during an election year.

2016: Obama's America (2012)
Written and directed by Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan.

Posted by Andrew

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