Conservative author/activist Dinesh D’Souza makes a compelling case for American exceptionalism in the documentary based on his bestselling book out last month, named after the adopted country he clearly loves. "America" is D'Souza's successor to his 2012 film "2016: Obama's America," the second most successful political documentary in movie history.
In "America," D’Souza’s main thesis involves disputing a multi-pronged liberal narrative demonizing America and naming the victims of this “conquest,” a narrative he systematically proves false.
The film’s opening and closing credits provide some of the most effective and evocative patriotic imagery. It begins with signature American tropes ranging from ordinary (the diner) to extraordinary (the moon landing) and ends with a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” performed by conservative rock band Madison Rising. "America" is also bookended powerfully by gorgeous panoramas of such national monuments as Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington, D.C.
Arguably though what hits home the most is how “America’s” story is told through its real footage of everyday Americans. There's her soldiers going to war, families taking root in the suburbs; and the film’s political and cultural clips, featuring historical figures from Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan up to the modern day Clintons, Barack "You didn't build that" Obama, Rand Paul and innovators Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
Contrasting the visuals of street protests, from the grave Civil Rights movement to the poseur of Occupy Wall Street illustrates a powerful foil: the former being a genuinely justified and courageous quest for equality; the latter, a misguided attack of the capitalist system that superstar and humanitarian Bono correctly credits as more effective than aid in bringing millions out of poverty. The film examines how liberal ideology touts government assistance while conservatism encourages individual freedom and responsibility. Calls to mind what a friend described as the difference between the two: the conservative mindset is to free people up to make their own pursuits. Liberalism is about doing everything for them, which is nowhere nearly as realistic or gratifying.
Particularly striking about the stock footage as well as documentarian interviews is some differences illuminated between not only liberal and conservative ideas, but people. "America" features how conservatives, especially Christians, are by on large much more generous in their charitable giving than secular liberals.
D’Souza speaks with or features several left-wing, anti-American figures like Ward Churchill, Michael Eric Dyson and (via historical footage) “Rules for Radicals” author Saul Alinsky. All of them, Alinsky most aggressively, come off as distinctly unhappy people. It’s at the same time understandable yet baffling. Of course they would be miserable, living in a country they hate yet refuse to leave.
This is a stark contrast from the enthusiasm and optimism “America” exhibits in conservatives such as Ted Cruz and Star Parker, who give historical as well as personal examples of American greatness. Particularly inspiring is Parker, who D’Souza describes as a quintessential American. She went from receiving and feeling entitled to welfare to being convinced she could do better for herself and others, and did. Parker is now a syndicated columnist and starter of her own foundation, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education.
Some of the most amusing aspects of the film is in D’Souza’s highlighting the shallow hypocrisy of liberal celebrities constantly trashing the country and capitalist system that made them famous, multi-millionaires. “America” shows vapid Hollywood pretty boys like Matt Damon and Woody Harrelson paying reverent obeisance to famously left-wing, anti-American historian Howard Zinn, whose “A People’s History of the United States” gives a scathing condemnation of America yet, as other historians prove, is loaded with spurious half-truths. D’Souza laments how “People’s History” is required reading in scores of high schools and universities; and how the nation’s youth are being taught to hate America based on a false narrative.
Unintentionally funny is how, as in speaking to Zinn about the evils of America, Harrelson never so closely resembled the empty-headed simpleton he portrayed for comic relief on “Cheers.” Though at least Woody the bartender had none of Woody the actor’s self-important pretense. Intentionally, and successfully funny, is how D’Souza poses the rhetorical question of whether Damon’s skill set really warrants his making millions of dollars for six weeks of filming. The answer being a somewhat bewildering but solidly market-driven yes, if the consumer determines he’s worth the price of the movie ticket. This is the system of commerce signature of that which Damon so persistently criticizes. This disconnect is reminiscent of the point conservative author and pundit Ann Coulter makes in her 2003 bestseller “Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism:” most liberal celebrities “wouldn’t consider working for two months for less than a million dollars.” Yet they consider it brave and en vogue to pile aspersions on the country that made them rich and famous.
Creatively, the film’s weakness is its historical re-enactments, which come across as amateurish, sometimes stilted. You’d see more realistic portrayals on the History Channel. It does support the unfortunate but true case that conservatives have ceded the culture to liberals. Overwhelmingly, liberals dominate entertainment. Their ideology ranges from wrong-headed to just plain evil, but they’ve learned the craft of storytelling and, over the last half-century, have used this as one of their most tremendously effective weapons in the culture war. Liberalism permeates the culture. Some conservatives may not want to admit it because they don’t want it to be true, or they underestimate the power and influence of culture. Some liberals won’t admit it because they claim they don’t like labels, or to throw us off their scent; but pervasive liberal bias is undeniable. Questioning the presence of liberalism in the culture is like the joke where the fish is saying, “Water, what water?” This is something that conservatives need to catch up to, as evidenced in this aspect of the filmmaking.
Granted, there is the adage that, unlike liberals, conservatives prefer substance over style. And Americans who love America, love “America.” It got a rare CinamaScore rating of "A+," and a 92 percent among audience members. The theatre where I saw it was packed; patrons applauded appreciatively, a reminder that 60 percent of the country defines themselves as conservative.
Perhaps D’Souza’s most compelling case for embracing America is in his status as an immigrant. He correctly reiterates the truth of America as a nation of immigrants. And in the subtitle of the film, he asks what the world would be like without her. That hypothetical alternate reality is not something he delves into nearly enough; but perhaps that’s a topic for his next film.