Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Dinesh D'Souza
Rated: PG (but could pass for G)
Red Flags: Nothing beyond what you see on TV news, so the PG rating is a mystery
I don't have an equal-time policy for movie reviews. Still, since I reviewed Fahrenheit 911 in 2004, I figured I at least owed it to myself to take on an election-year documentary with a conservative perspective.
First, let me put some transparency on the table. I consider myself an independent, mainly because I dislike both the Republican and Democratic parties. To be sure, I'm not a fan of political parties in general. As I have said before, George Washington didn't like them, didn't think they were good for America. We should've listened to him. If you had to peg me politically, I would call myself a moderate, nearly dead center, but leaning conservative. That's where PoliticalCompass.org puts me.
Despite the title, most of conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza's doc devotes itself to an examination of President Obama's beliefs and what formed them. Less than 10 percent of the film is devoted to predictions. D'Souza narrates the movie not as a raving partisan or GOP mouthpiece but as somebody who wants to understand how Barack Obama thinks. His thesis: Obama's ideology comes from his dislike of colonialism, having grown up in Kenya, which threw off British rule, and Hawaii, where some still resent annexation by the United States.
D'Souza journeys -- literally -- through Obama's upbringing and family, traveling around the world to talk to people who knew him, even borrowing the president's own voice from the audiobook version of Dreams From My Father. It's methodical and heartfelt as D'Souza explores the foundations of the president's leanings. D'Souza doesn't stage Michael Moore-style joke sequences. If anything, the doc plays like a political travelogue, where you're walking with D'Souza as he pursues his gnawing curiosities as a conservative intellectual.
Smartly, it doesn't bite on hot-button issues we've heard too much about. The picture quietly dismisses questions about Obama's birth country. It mentions mentors Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, but comes at them from a different perspective. And D'Souza steers clear of divisive ideological foghorns, choosing to interview comparatively quiet conservative intellectuals.
Making a movie like this is challenging from a illustrative perspective. When not taking us to lands far and away, one can only license or borrow so much news footage, show so many shots of Washington, and splice in so many soundbites. D'Souza and co-director John Sullivan make the interesting choice to stage or re-create a few visuals. That's not something we're allowed to do in the news business, but it's not off-limits in documentaries, and the way it's done is mostly tame.
2016 may change a few minds at the ballot box. It may also change a few minds about conservatives in general. As I write this, the picture is doing much better than expected at the box office for a documentary, especially one with no star power behind it. Perhaps it's because it doesn't preach or pound the table. Given the waves of negative ads we're seeing in this presidential campaign, that's refreshing for a lot of people.