From filmmakers John Sullivan and Dinesh D'Souza — makers of "2016: Obama's America," the No. 2 grossing political documentary ever, as D'Souza will remind you — comes the equally polemical documentary "America."
Its subtitle, "Imagine the World Without Her," makes a provocative premise. Instead, the film appears to be a point-by-point takedown of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States: 1942 to Present" and its central thesis that the nation has thrived on purloining from Native Americans, Mexicans, slaves, labor and natural resources.
He attempts to debunk Zinn through apagoge, as if finding an exception to Zinn's every rule will invalidate Zinn's entire argument. And D'Souza does find a slew of such exceptions: intertribal disputes and diseases that he suggests were just as responsible as European settlers for wiping out the Native American population, white indentured servants working alongside black slaves, blacks owning slaves themselves.
D'Souza makes some cogent points yet will not concede the existence of any gray area. The possibility that he and Zinn could both be right seems unfathomable.
The filmmaker has an engaging presence. Any time he's sitting across from an interviewee, he exudes the aura of a respectable journalist. To his credit, he makes a point to include voices of dissent such as Noam Chomsky. But D'Souza and his opponents hardly engage in any debate. Often, he's merely rebutting sound bites from Elizabeth Warren and Michael Moore. He accuses them of spewing rhetoric, but it's hard to see how they are guilty and he's not.
"America" seems more intent on editorializing, razzling and dazzling than on stimulating civic debate. As far as agitprops go, this is as polished as a commercial. It's far more invested in elaborate historical reenactments, hypothetical dramatizations and special effects than interviews, research and data. (A Moore news clip gets superimposed on a Jumbotron.) It's "Sesame Street"-style show and tell, complete with highly suggestive musical cues.
In the end, the film feels like D'Souza is making excuses for his January indictment on charges of violating federal campaign finance laws. The non sequitur final anti-government segment seems irreconcilable with all the American virtues he's simultaneously extolling. And the irony that the film's distributor, Lionsgate, is Canadian should not be lost.
'America: Imagine the World Without Her'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violent images
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times