There are very good intentions at the core of America: Imagine a World Without Her, Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan’s follow-up to their smash hit 2016: Obama’s America. In focusing much of their attack on Howard Zinn, the filmmakers look to rewrite history again, this time in a more positive manner. That isn’t to say the documentary is out to defend slavery or imperialism or any of the other shameful things spotlighted in The People’s History of the United States, but it does concentrate on how the nation has continually gotten on the right path and put its wrongdoings behind. Narrating and appearing on screen as the film’s main driving force, D’Souza implies that America is great because we did have that Civil War and eventually abolished slavery. Basically, he believes we should be celebrating the fact that we no longer treat people like property, not harping on the fact that we once did.
What should be an easy bit of spin, though, winds up a terribly argued thesis on why America is the best — which comes down to stating that at least it’s not that bad — with an ultimate agenda to literally demonize Saul Alinsky and of course note the “Lucifer-like” activist’s influence on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The latter even gets a teenage portrayal in one of the film’s many bland simulations, the worst of which opens America so awkwardly and persistently that it could turn viewers off immediately. Just as with D’Souza and Sullivan’s last documentary (also produced by Schindler’s List Oscar winner Gerald R. Molen), this one stumbles in its judgment of what works, including moments that don’t help its cause or illustrate events effectively. Never mind the motives behind this piece of political propaganda, the actual problem with America is that it is structured poorly, with a third act that seems tacked on even though that’s where it finally gets to the point.
The lengthy Revolutionary War reenactment sequence ahead of the opening credits ends with George Washington being killed by sniper rifle. We’re then asked to “imagine the unimaginable” via a few “What if?” questions regarding that hypothetical situation and others, namely different conclusions to the Civil War and World War II. “What would the world look like if America didn’t exist? D’Souza asks. He’s being rhetorical, though, because this isn’t one of those alternate history mockumentaries, a la C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, and he never means to answer it himself. It’s the sort of question meant to make us simply think, well, that would be bad. But he doesn’t tell us why that is, either. Instead he moves on to defend America against a few of its greatest criticisms, sort of in a manner of how some people respond to allegations of racism by pointing out that they have black friends.
He highlights the usual offenses the U.S. is charged with, such as theft of the land from the Native Americans, theft of part of Mexico, theft of life and work via slavery, theft of resources through imperialist wars and theft of a fair share of the money by way of capitalism. In the following hour, the film goes through and checks each of these off as D’Souza explores the most rudimentary retorts alleging that it could have been worse. His rhetoric consists of the “everyone else is bad, too” approach. The whole world has a conquest mentality, even the Native Americans before the Europeans arrived. Blacks owned slaves, and some slaves were white. We all cheat on our taxes (but only those opposing Obama get audited and caught). There’s no shame in something so long as it’s common, apparently.
The film’s worst reasoning is in the imperialism and capitalism sections. On the former D’Souza shows no comprehension of what the issue with U.S. foreign policy and alleged imperialist exploitation is by concentrating on how we didn’t get anything out of Vietnam or even the Iraq War and rather were there to help. And on the latter he is so simplistic in his support of the basic capitalist ideology that he’s akin to anyone who still thinks that communism still has a chance. Never mind that again he misses the point of its current detractors; he acts as if capitalism is all about self-made entrepreneurs and small businesses just getting by. All he really had to do with these criticisms was to say that we’ve stopped doing this one thing, and that other thing is really just being ruined by isolated greedy persons, not an entire nation.
D’Souza should recognize that what this country’s internal critics are doing is part of the tradition he seems to be celebrating, but early on he refers to the complainers as anti-America. The film then features a simulation of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in discussion while the co-director talks of the plan to send all the black people back to Africa after they’re freed and how Douglass rejected the idea because he wanted to stay, participate and make the United States better. It should be crystal clear that the same is true for Occupy Wall Street and any other protestors here today. And that he fits in there too with his protests of the Obama administration. The difference, I guess, is that complaining is only okay when it’s D’Souza and others on his side of the political fence — like Lincoln, whom the film loves to remind was a Republican — making the complaints and working toward a better nation.
For a lot of America, D’Souza tells us not to dwell on what mistakes we made as a young country. Still, he tends to dwell on things Obama and Clinton did and thought and read about and were influenced towards in their youth. As for the problems of today, he only quickly and vaguely touches on issues of surveillance and Obamacare, which I get the feeling is a sore enough spot for the filmmaker that if it were overturned today he’d still be talking about it tomorrow, shaming us for allowing it in the first place, as if it was the worst wart for American history since we enslaved human beings.
I wouldn’t call D’Souza a hypocrite. He’s just confused. And a little scattered. Does he want us to imagine a world without the United States? No more than through his proposal that slavery would have been abolished in this land much later than it was and that we wouldn’t have helped so many Afghans with aid. Does he want to offer a detailed response to Zinn and liberal white guilt? He could have cut off nicely when he was done with that weak yet focused section of the film. Or does he want this all to be about Alinsky? The doc should have brought him up a lot earlier rather than tossing him in at the end like some superhero movie where the real mastermind villain is revealed just before or just after the credits.
America could’ve easily been a documentary that makes us feel okay to be proud of America’s history, for its improvement and progress through democracy. But it’s too stuck on D’Souza’s fears for where the country is going to let that feeling last. And it’s satisfied with being strictly for the people who are already proud not of the country but of living in it, because of superficial significance that just comes down to pride for pride’s sake. Not unlike D’Souza’s flaunting his success and that of his last film, for no reason other than to flex. He needs more than a box office hit to change the world, though, and we need more than to be told this is the greatest country on Earth to believe it so.
Due to the fact that this film never has anything to do with pondering an It’s a Wonderful Life scenario where the United States fills in for Jimmy Stewart’s character, the title America: Imagine a World Without Her doesn’t seem to make any sense. Unless it’s referring to itself. I can easily imagine a world without America the documentary. And now I’m waiting, still, for a good right-wing documentary to take its place.
This review was originally published on July 4, 2014. It is being reposted now that America is on DVD and iTunes.