The title of America: Imagine the World Without Her is a misnomer for which a marketing consultant should be sacked. Despite a few brief special effect images, I did not walk away from this docudrama with any sense of what the world would be without America. Aside from suggesting that had George Washington died in battle, Mt. Rushmore would never have been carved (believable enough); that, had the Civil War ravaged America, the statue of Lincoln in the Memorial would be absent though the structure in which it resides would still be there (this one puzzled me); and that, had Hitler obtained the atomic bomb, he would have destroyed the US Capitol but left the National Endowment of the Humanities standing (perhaps to preserve Leni Riefenstahl films), the movie offers none of the It’s a Wonderful Life counterhistory that its title promises.
A better title might have been Natural Rights, Country Music, Apple Pie and Other Things That Make America “the Beautiful”. This more accurately describes the message, and it is not a bad message to propagate. As one for whom the choice between a Philly cheesesteak and a pulled-pork sandwich prompts a dark night of the soul, I count myself among those who think that America is a very special place. The problem is not that Dinesh D’Souza’s America makes this point. The problem is that it makes it in such an artless and unconvincing way.
As a movie critic, I tried to judge the movie on its own merits; not by the arguments that it makes but by the cinematic elements that it employs to make them. The two greatest political documentaries of all time–Battleship Potemkin and Triumph of the Will–glorified the most evil political ideologies in recent memory. And yet those montages and aerial shots are some of the most memorable moments that a camera’s eye ever captured. But Mr. D’Souza and his co-director, John Sullivan (who is presumably the more experienced cineaste of the two) do not have much interest in creating anything sublime.
There is plenty in the film that is beautiful. I could sit watching their long shots of American fields, townships and purple mountain majesty all day, although I would have to plug a set of earphones in and listen to Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” instead of the unfamiliar country ditty that was playing in the background. But, as Edmund Burke would say, ugliness and ruin can make for as stirring photography as beauty and orderliness; but nothing so affecting is found in the film. Things take a turn for the worse when Mr. D’Souza himself begins to star in his film. He does all of the things that documentarians do: Provides a voiceover narration; incorporates his identity as an immigrant into the film’s thematic narrative; walks about knocking on the doors of various activists such as Ward Churchill, Noam Chomsky and other regular culprits.
But these cliches make the movie predictable and lifeless. There are plenty of people who disagree with D’Souza in the movie. For example, he allows controversial activists like Charmaine White Face, the Lakota coordinator of the Defenders of the Black Hills,, and Charles Truxillo, a Chicano supporter of a sovereign Hispanic nation that would include the territory from Texas to California, to voice their opinions. And D’Souza does not vilify either of them. But he does not take their arguments too seriously. Settlers, we are told, did not steal America from the American Indians because America didn’t exist then and we added value to Manhattan by building the Empire State Building there. As for Mexico, we gave half of it back, didn’t we? Plenty of Hispanic Americans, like Texas resident Ted Cruz for instance, say that the annexation was justified, and, besides, Mexican migrant workers still try to break into America rather than the other way around–at least according to a border guard who looks and sounds like R. Lee Ermey.
This is not to say that the movie lacks it’s share of villains. It has as many as a Spiderman sequel. And it is easy to come up with titles for them as well: There is Howard Zinn, the “Not Real” Historian; Saul Alinsky, the Socialist-Mobster-Creeper-of-Playgrounds; Hillary Clinton, the Reprobate Goldwater Girl; and, of course, the IRS, the … IRS. It is at these moments when D’Souza is the most conspiratorial, perhaps because this is where the movie hits closest to home. Interviewing public figures like Senator Rand Paul and attorney Alan Dershowitz (the lawyer Ron Silver played in Reversal of Fortune) D’Souza claims that America is in the midst of a civil liberties crisis and soon the NSA and the IRS will be arresting Americans for spitting in the laundry.
D’Souza claims Aaron Swartz as a martyr of the new era of warrantless wiretapping; the fact that most of the audience gasped with surprise when they heard that Swartz “took his own life” rather than face prosecution is a testament to how old the audience of America is. For just about anyone under fifty, this is yesterday’s news. The fact that the relatively small audience in my home city of Rochester, New York gave the film an ovation also suggests that they probably agreed with most of what it had to say before they even watched it.
And that is the exact problem with documentaries like America on the Right (or, for that matter, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States on the Left, to be bipartisan). Both Dinesh D’Souza and Oliver Stone could do better by taking a look at Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” or Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire. What made these documentaries something more than movie adaptations of Fox News and MSNBC was that both documentarians seemed unsure of where they stood on the issue at hand. Davis Guggenheim was a liberal best known for An Inconvenient Truth who honestly wanted to know why a public school system he believed in so strongly could fail so profoundly; Tony Kaye admitted he didn’t know his position on abortion, a fact which might not make him a moral authority, but which made him a better filmmaker as he tried to capture thoughts and motivations of the regular people at the center of society’s most contentious issue.
D’Souza would probably call this critique hypocritical. How can one criticize his documentary as political propaganda while giving a free pass to Nazi and Soviet documentarians? The short answer is that these documentarians were pioneers in their field and, therefore, could venture into territory where other filmmakers had feared to tread–for Eisenstein, it was experimental editing and, for Riefenstahl, it was heart-stopping cinematography. But also, ironically, the immorality of these filmmaker’s ideologies has probably indirectly made both films more popular with critics. Because no critic goes to either film expecting to be convinced by its message, they focus exclusively on its artistic merit; once they strip away the content of The Battleship Potemkin and Triumph of the Will, they are still able to find a product which is worth watching. If only I could say the same thing for America.