Eight years ago, a piece of hysterical, conspiracy mongering propaganda, posing as entertainment, was released in American movie theaters before the presidential election. I suspect that many who would dismiss this film from Conservative thinker Dinesh DSouza, will simply view it as attempted turnabout for Fahrenheit 911. Both have political objectives, both were produced, written and directed by film makers with strong political opinions, and both of them can be criticized for problems with the data they use or selective editing of interviews or events. The final complaint is true of every documentary, because it represents the views of it’s creator. One major difference here is that D’Souza frankly admits that the film is his explanatory theory of Barack Obama’s decision making philosophy. He is looking for a holistic explanation for why the President acts and believes the things that he does, and also why Americans have largely not seen the real philosophy that D’Souza sees.
I have a hard time imagining anyone who shares the President’s views on international relations or economic issues, would ever find themselves an audience member for this film. They are likely to be antagonistic from the very beginning. There is in fact a brief segment in the movie that shows some pretty strong reactions from a variety of public figures to the articles D’Souza first published on this subject, prior to writing his two books that the film is based on. One of the most difficult things to do for any true believer, is to get them to suspend judgement long enough to hear the other side. That is true of both ends of the political spectrum. I’m not writing about this because of a political agenda, there are other places for me to express my opinions on those kinds of issues. I know that people reading this blog do so because they are interested in film. I will try to focus on the film and not the politics of the movie in sharing my opinion here.
For example, everyone on both sides of the political aisle, will accept a couple of premises. President Obama believes that American foreign policy has been over expansive and it has neglected the need of other nations of the world. He opposed the war in Iraq, and has clearly reduced American military power in parts of the world where he feels our interests are not threatened. This is not a controversial statement. Neither is the second premise, the President believes the role of the government is to protect those who are treated unjustly and to make sure that economic activity benefits are distributed in a manner that he sees as being fair. So the expansion of government to achieve those objectives is appropriate. I don’t think there are any supporters of the President who would deny that those are core principles that he holds. The thing that makes this film controversial is the theory D’Souza advances that these views reflect an anti-colonialist point of view that has morphed into an anti-capitalist perspective which is antithetical to the American tradition. In addition the point he is making is that these views are reflective of Obama’s personal history and upbringing. He also takes the position that Americans have largely not seen these things about the President for some very calculated reasons. Those are the meat of the movie.
The manner that he presents this case involves some contrasting parallels between himself and the President. Race issues are mentioned, and D’Souza has an interesting theory.He and the President, despite being the same skin color and having some similar outsider characteristics,see the race issues in different terms. As an immigrant, D’Souza believes he measures the status of race issues against the rest of the world and in practical terms. The President on the other hand is seen as defining the status of race against our history and our ideals. The film makes an effective case, using the Presidents own words and voice, that to overcome the barriers that race might present to a candidate seeking widespread support, the tone of discussion must be different if not downright diversionary. Some comparisons to African American political figures is used to make the point. It is D’Souza’a contention that Barack Obama turned the race issue into a net benefit for himself in a way that diverted attention away from the more damaging political philosophies that really define him. This was the strongest section of the film, but it was not the one that the greatest amount of time was spent on. His point here would make a good subject for a dissertation in political communication.
The sections of the movie that take up the greatest amount of time, deal with the roots of Obama’s political ideals. It is the title of Obama’s own autobiography that suggests the theme here, “Dreams from My Father”. I am suspicious of any psychology based biographies, regardless of their point of view, because the analyst basically selects the events and incidents that they want to focus on to confirm their own thesis. The insights are usually so speculative that they are tantamount to reading tea leaves as a way of interpreting history. There are two or three talking head segments in the film, that seem to conform to my worst views of these kind of analysis. There are however stronger indicators to make the same argument. Once again, the President’s own words, many of them spoken in his voice from the audiobook, and from news video, do a better job at making the case than the “living up to my father” projection that is basically the same thing Oliver Stone did with his biographical film “W”. The use of current events and political decisions that the President has made is also more convincing than those psychological profiles.
This movie could have been a hatchet job on the President, based on political differences. Dinesh D’Souza is clearly a conservative writer with a dramatically different philosophy than the Presidents’. The film is structured in a very loose, narrative fashion. It develops theories, and offers data as proof that are sometimes convincing and sometimes not. A skilled propagandist would have turned this into a much more focused, hard hitting piece that attacks continuously. It might have been a more effective political product then, but I doubt that it would have the ability to change anyone’s beliefs any more than political ads do. By structuring this as an investigation of a theory, it is more palatable to a wider audience, and it is more believable at times as well. I have read some articles on the marketing of the movie. We saw it with a crowd of thirty five people in a theater designed to hold a hundred and twenty. We saw a Saturday afternoon matinee, and I’ve seen Hollywood blockbusters with smaller crowds on an opening weekend. I think we might be surprised at the box office returns, but to me the bigger surprise is how the film presents it’s point of view, to allow any viewer the ability to accept or reject it’s conclusions. It is a one sided argument, but it is clearly presented as an argument.