‘America’ won’t find converts: Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary leaves no room for debate

For The Washington PostJuly 4, 2014 

Frederick Douglass as portrayed in "America,” a documentary about the world without the United States.

PHOTO PROVIDED

  • if you go

    What: “America”

    Rating: PG-13

    Where: UEC Theater 12

    Info: www.americathemovie.com

At the start of “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” Gen. George Washington is killed by a British sniper. He’s one of the few targets that takes a direct hit in conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza’s scattershot movie.

The polemical documentary is a companion piece to the author’s new book, which bears the same title. The movie version was written and directed by D’Souza and John Sullivan, who previously collaborated on “2016: Obama’s America,” an under-the-radar box-office hit two years ago. This follow-up should also sell tickets, but it’s unlikely to convert any D’Souza skeptics to his viewpoint.

The writer, who narrates, hasn’t actually crafted an alternate-history fable in which the British quashed the American Revolution. He quickly abandons that intriguing but messily open-ended premise in favor of an argument with the American political left. He lists some of their claims against the United States — that it’s racist, expansionist, imperialist, colonialist and so on — and then sort of refutes them.

The film summarizes the charges of such strident critics of American society and policies as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill, some of whom appear briefly. They share screen time with actors who impersonate Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, as well as Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker who toured the United States more than 180 years ago. The performers are supplemented by uniformed battle re-enactors, who give the modestly budgeted movie a cast-of-hundreds sweep.

For those who resent the left, “America” provides some rousing moments. D’Souza includes a clip in which U2’s Bono, known as an advocate of Third World anti-poverty efforts rather than a proponent of First World superiority, calls the United States “a great idea,” and praise from the likes of de Tocqueville, whose opinion of this country may be a little dated. (He died in 1859.)

“America” is less successful as a debate, because it isn’t one. D’Souza controls the conversation, and thus goes unchallenged when he tries to make real-world points with make-believe scenarios. To rebut the notion that capitalism is rapacious, for example, he includes a segment on Delish Dinesh, an imaginary burger joint with a tiny profit margin. But if fiction is allowed, what’s to stop Chomsky from dreaming up a cappuccino chain, Noam’s Foams, that earns huge returns by exploiting the Third World?

D’Souza sketches harsh portraits of such right-wing bogeymen as Hillary Clinton, community organizer Saul Alinsky and, of course, Barack Obama. Yet the movie often arrives at uncontroversial conclusions. Conceding that slavery was wrong, and that his cherished America sometimes slipped into empire-building mode, D’Souza suggests that the United States is a good country that has done some bad things.

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