I’m not a film critic (although I ate one when stranded on a desert island once). I’m not sophisticated in all the techniques and stuff you are supposed to know to be a real critic. I know I rarely agree with critics when they blast an action film on some esoteric grounds (OK, everyone was correct about Hudson Hawk at every level; it was really that bad). But I can spot dishonesty and bias when it masquerades as film criticism.
When I looked at one of my favorite iPhone apps, Flixster, to get times for the movie, I saw that the professional critics had rated it at 10% while the viewers had rated it at 90%. I hadn’t seen such a spread even for an Expendables movie!
Before I took my youngest son, who is 16, to see America I had seen clips and interviews with Dinesh D’Souza. From the title, and the clips, the greatest critique of the film (and one which many critics have rightfully mentioned) emerges – the film sets up, and then never follows through on, the premise of the subtitle “Imagine the world without her.”
Possible Spoiler alert – you may want to skip the next paragraph; I don’t want Roger Ebert’s ghost ripping into me for spoiling this like he did Gene Siskel on The Crying Game. Wait, Ebert’s ghost writer Peter Sobczynski already spoiled this in his review. But maybe you want some untold secrets from the movie so skip the next paragraph anyway.
In the beginning of the film, as in the previews, we see national landmarks – Mt. Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Mt. Suribachi Monument – all dissolving away as if they never existed. Effective theater – maybe the best in the movie. We have a Revolutionary War re-enactment where General George Washington is killed by a sniper – and with the British routing the American army, ending the Revolution. Unsaid, ending America as we know it today.
This is the main criticism I have of the film – when the very subtitle of the movie is “Imagine a World Without Her [America]” you need to explicitly describe what the world would be like without America, and why it would be that way. Duh! You need to posit why a British and French and Spanish and Native American North America would not have developed along similar lines, why the Model A would not have been built in a Canadian Dearborn or Detroit, or an iPhone not have been invented in el Valle del Silicio, etc. This would have been a strenuous mental exercise of alternative history, and was probably far too ambitious a project for a single movie (entire series of books have dealt with the subject), and the criticism could have easily been avoided by simply not posing the question (and admittedly skipping the cool graphics). By not even addressing what a world would be like without America at any later point in the movie you are, frankly, leaving too much to the imagination, and placing too much of an intellectual burden on the audience.
Perhaps D’Souza did have this in the film but edited it out. If so, it was the greatest error in editing since the footage of Butch and Sundance after their run from the cabin in Bolivia and saying, “Whew! We made it!” got left on the cutting room floor.
What D’Souza really was asking in his movie was what he posed in an earlier book, What’s So Great About America. The Leftists that he allows to make their case at some length – their indictments against America – ask in essence “What’s so uniquely great about America?” D’Souza responds with his answer as a declaration followed by a list: “What’s so uniquely great about America is as follows…” At this level the movie works.
Had the film reviewers stuck to criticisms that he fails to live up to his alternative history premise and downgraded the movie, I would have no problem with them. If they had criticized it on technical grounds that I am not qualified to judge, I would not comment. But reviewer after reviewer based their negative reviews on political bias or simple snark or worst of all, false claims about what the movie portrayed.
Peter Sobczynski, writing on RogerEbert.com, one of our best-known film critic sites, begins his review as follows:
“In 2012, political commentator, author, disgraced former university president and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza released “2016: Obama’s America,” a documentary that purported to investigate our president’s past in order to uncover his hidden agenda that, left unchecked, could very well lead our country to the brink of destruction.”
It is, of course, important for a film critic to instruct his readers about the history and character of the director of a film before critiquing it. For example, just a few weeks before, another Roger Ebert clone, Matt Zoller Seitz, had cautioned his readers about convicted felon Roman Polanski, “You’d be hard pressed to imagine a more seemingly perfect match of director and material than Roman Polanski and “Venus in Fur.””
Well, OK, so Seitz didn’t think it necessary to say that Polanski was convicted of sexually molesting a 13-year-old girl and fled the country to avoid prison. Probably an oversight.
But Sobczynski was right to point out that D’Souza was “disgraced,” because that was probably something that even Hollywood would rise up in shock and horror against, yes? And indeed this “disgrace” turns out to be that he… ah… was caught in a hotel with a woman who wasn’t his wife. How very… un-Hollywood. And something I’m sure Sobczynski has pointed out with every other director who has ever been unfaithful to his wife in reviews of their movies. Remember how Ebert excoriated Rupert Sanders, director of Snow White and the Huntsman for his marriage-ending affair with Kristen Stewart in his review of that movie? Neither do I.
So maybe Sobczynski prejudices his readers just a bit from the get-go against the movie because of his political bias.
Sobczynski says he will stick to discussing the cinematic failing of the movie, rather than the content issues, except to “wonder why he left the recounting of the Texas-Mexico conflict to Canadian-born Ted Cruz.” That would be Texas Senator Ted Cruz whose father is Cuban (naturalized U.S. citizen) and mother born in the U.S. Perhaps a Texas Senator might be expected to have an informed perspective on his state’s history?
But enough about Sobczynski. Let’s turn to a few other reviews.
A common theme is that of the internet scholars who support the meme that the Civil War was not about slavery. Ironically, this is the very position taken by those southerners who protest that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of slavery but is a legitimate symbol of states’ rights and history and should be flown proudly and kept within states’ flags, since the Civil War was over states’ rights and federalism, not slavery. Odd to see liberals on the side of those folks. Or not so odd, as the Confederacy was a Democrat operation, as was the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and opposition to civil rights laws.
James Rocchi of “The Wrap”, writes:
“[D’Souza says,] “For the first time in history, a war was fought to end slavery.” This is, of course, a grotesque lie (see Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley of August 22, 1862) and just one of the multiple failings of fact and argument in “America.””
The facts are that Lincoln personally found slavery morally repugnant, but he was faced with a very tough political and social environment after the start of the Civil War. While the strong abolitionist movement and firebrand Republicans (Democrats did not jerk away the mantle of civil rights until the early 1970s when they took over academia and re-wrote history) wanted him to free the slaves immediately, cooler heads cautioned that the citizenry were not behind the war whole heartedly.
Lincoln was counseled by his cabinet to delay any announcement freeing slaves until after a significant Union victory, as the war was not going well in late 1861 and early 1862. On August 19, 1862, even as a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation lay in Lincoln’s desk, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, wrote an editorial chastising Lincoln for a perceived weakening of his stated goal of ending slavery, a plank of his presidential campaign. Lincoln’s letter was by way of a political response, a response which Greeley later reflected was very slippery and non-committal.
Lincoln was (gasp!) a politician. He wrote a public letter to an editor during war time in response to an editorial that internet pundits today are citing as historically definitive, ignoring all of the context and history leading up to it.
At Antietam on September 17-18, 1862 General Lee lost over 10,000 men and the Union’s McClellan lost over 12,000 men, but since Lee withdrew Lincoln used this “victory” to pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. Lincoln seized the politically ripe moment to ride the wave and bring the population along with him. Had he freed the slaves prior to this he might have fragmented the Union and destroyed his hopes not only of freeing the slaves but of preserving the Union.
To claim that the Civil War was not fought to end slavery is false; it betrays an ignorance of the politics of the election of 1860 and the maneuverings of the prior decades. Seven southern states seceded over the issue of slavery prior to Lincoln’s inauguration; secession had only been temporarily averted by the Compromise of 1850. While issues like state’s rights, federalism and tariffs were all involved, the central issue (which the others were bound with) was slavery. Had Lincoln and the Northern and Western states been willing to allow the new states like California to be admitted as slave states, or had the northern states been willing to abide by the Fugitive Slave law imposed by the Compromise of 1850, there might not have been a Civil War. The expansion of slavery and the prosecution of escaped slaves across state lines was a huge issue leading up to secession and the war.
So, yes, the Civil War was fought over slaves in spite of what a public letter to the editor said. There were other factors, but the 800-lb gorilla was slavery.
Rocchi’s “grotesque lie” happens to be the history we are all familiar with.
One of the silliest reviews is by Gabe Toro. He apparently didn’t see the same movie I did. He says D’Souza mentions one black slave owner; D’Souza has a running counter which tallies over 5,700 black slave owners. Toro writes, “The metaphors and doubletalk end just about when D’Souza flat-out compares Alinsky to Lucifer.” Sorry, Gabe, what D’Souza accurately points out is that Saul Alinsky dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer. Alinsky may have done so tongue-in-cheek, but it’s there. Toro’s further claim that D’Souza is saying the White House is under the control of the devil is, frankly, nonexistent and not even implied in any way except in Toro’s fevered mind. (My wife might say that, but D’Souza did not.)
Toro continues to raise such straw-man arguments, such as the claim that D’Souza says that discussions of slavery weaken our country and our resolve; what D’Souza asks for is that we have a balanced discussion, acknowledging the negative but also acknowledging the positive.
Indeed, this could be the subtitle of the movie – you’ve got to accentuate the positive. Progress is never made by dwelling on the negative, as the Leftists interviewed in America have made a career of doing. They do not move us forward, because they dwell in the past and demand that we ignore the progress made to simply condemn; in their mind, nothing can possibly make up for transgressions hundreds of years in the past. Putting that in a religious perspective, that would mean that Christians should continue to hate Jews, and Muslims should hate… well, maybe enough said there.
Progress is made by those who acknowledge the past but recognize that that whatever negativity existed there was also positive that allowed us to move forward, and that on balance the positive outweighed the negative. Sometimes it takes a great and bloody civil war to move forward. What has made America great is that we have built upon philosophical, religious and economic foundations that allowed us to overcome the negative and the benefits have far exceeded the costs. We have exported those benefits to much of the world, as the Indian (?) economist (?)pointed out in the movie as far as how capitalism has benefitted the world.
America is also a movie that misses many opportunities. When Noam Chomsky talks of America killing 2 million Vietnamese, D’Souza missed the opportunity to tell the story of what happened when the U.S. abandoned the South Vietnamese, creating what the U.N. called one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history. Millions of ethnic Chinese were killed or forced from their homes to return to China in North Viet Nam, 2.5 million South Vietnamese were forced into re-education camps, between 400,000 and 2.5 million people were killed by the Communists after the U.S withdrew in 1975, etc. Here is actually an example of the subtitle – imagine Viet Nam without America. It wasn’t pretty.
Was America a great movie? No. I left vaguely dissatisfied (my son loved it), although I liked the musical credits so left feeling upbeat. Production values (does that make me sound like a professional critic?) could have been better. Abe Lincoln was too short. D’Souza is not all that convincing as a narrator, and ego should have been trumped by better casting. Kelsey Grammar would have been great in the role of narrator; if you saw the movie, picture him in the D’Souza role. From what I hear nosed around (I do not travel in rarified conservative circles but I do sniff some things out) D’Souza has burned a lot of bridges in the conservative intellectual community, so he may not be able to call on some of the major conservative historians still around, who could have burnished his work.
Perhaps the work was overambitious; that appears a fault of D’Souza, and he appears headed for jail come September in part because of that. He has some good instincts, and certainly a love for his adopted country, and I wish him the best. He has done some superb work in the past, in my humble opinion, and I hope he can do more in the future if he can become grounded again and do more annotated work and less populous, hyperbolic work He just needs someone to help him focus and reign in his ambitions for the next project.