‘2016’/’The Campaign’Written by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
“We survived Bush, you’ll survive Obama.’
— Facebook post
I pay attention to a great deal of political discourse, and that six-word statement sums up America’s current situation better than reams of more sophisticated rhetoric ever could. It is simultaneously defiant and resigned, divisive and clement. Two new films, “The Campaign” and “2016: Obama’s America,” contain similarly overlapping and contradictory messages.
“2016” is a documentary, in the same way Michael Moore’s films are documentaries — not cinematic questions in search of answers, but agendas in search of supporting “facts.”
Based on books by commentator Dinesh D’Souza, “2016” seeks to “explain” President Barack Obama’s political philosophy through contextualization of Obama’s childhood and parental models. That in itself isn’t a controversial thesis. It is inarguable that one’s childhood and formative years help define who one is as an adult. In some cases that might mean capitulation to parental ideals and in some cases that might mean a rejection of those ideals. Either way, you am who you am in large part because of your upbringing.
For me, the son of an Air Force veteran and a woman from Texas, that upbringing was 100 percent baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and the American flag. I was raised under conditions of unconditional love for America and American exceptionalism. As I grew older, I learned to question and often doubt the caretakers of America’s freedom, but I have never questioned the freedom itself. I do believe the United States of America is the greatest blend of freedom, capitalism and opportunity in world history. That doesn’t mean I believe our country is perfect, but that devotion and dedication to America shapes my politics and philosophy.
Neither Obama nor D’Souza shared my experience. D’Souza spent the first 17 years of his life in his native India. Obama was born in Hawaii (really, he was), spent a number of his early years in Indonesia and later moved back to Hawaii. Obama’s Kenyan biological father only met the future president once; it was up to Obama’s mother to raise him, and eventually, she shifted that responsibility to his grandparents. In “2016,” D’Souza makes the case that because he believes Obama was not raised to love America but to question and even resent its colonialist tendencies, he builds his presidency around trying “to shrink America’s footprint in the world because he thinks we’ve been stepping on the world.”
At the afternoon showing Aug. 24 at Rave Cinemas at Fallen Timbers, the audience was about 70, by which I mean there were about 70 people in the audience and their average age was 70. The group was engrossed by “2016,” murmuring and nodding; it very much resembled a church service in the way the audience responded to the film’s narrative. At the end of the film, the audience enthusiastically applauded and was clearly energized by the message.
“2016” is much more moderate in its approach than the typical Michael Moore joint, but it does contain some howlers. The use of ominous music when Indonesia is on screen, the graphics of gathering black clouds and the images of cemeteries used over discussions of a future under Obama are clumsy and transparent. D’Souza is careful to avoid giving attention to Obama’s place of birth and admitted drug use, which allows him to spend time on Obama’s influences and mentors (Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, etc.).
D’Souza more boldly than any previous commentator, attributes Obama’s political ascent to his race. D’Souza tries to diffuse the tactic by literally showing the skin of his hand and letting the audience see he shares Obama’s general pigmentation. (“See!” he seems to say, “I have dark skin, too, so I clearly I can’t be racist!”) It is fair to connect Obama’s election to the historical journey of civil rights in America, but it’s disingenuous to attribute the man’s success to that factor alone.
“The Campaign,” a comedy that pits Will Ferrell’s Republican incumbent senator against Zach Galifianakis’ amateur challenger, does not strive to be overly specific in its current events satire. But it perfectly captures the influence of money (with Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow as de facto Koch Brothers) and the lemming tendencies of many voters. In one scene, Galifianakis reads from crayon-illustrated pages of “Rainbowland,” written by Ferrell’s character in second grade, interpreting it as a communist manifesto. A whipped-to-a-frenzy audience member screams at Ferrell, “You can’t make me live in Rainbowland!” It would be even funnier if it weren’t an accurate reflection of the impact of partisan rhetoric.
The main targets of “The Campaign” may be politicians, but the most collateral damage is done to voters, who are treated as parrots more concerned with the party line than with facts or what is best for the country.
“2016” and “The Campaign” are appropriate bookends to experience as the November election nears. One is clearly serious and one is clearly a farce, but there are elements of possibly unintentional seriousness in the comedy and elements of probably unintentional hilarity in the documentary.
One message is clear in both movies: We can argue and debate and yell all we want, but after the ballots are counted it often doesn’t matter which candidate won; it’s often the citizens, defiant and resigned, divisive and clement, who lose.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.