It was a slow movie weekend, and to anyone idly watching, the Top 10 grossers were a toss-up. "The Expendables 2," for #1 a repeat? Easy. "Premium Rush," banking on Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Lycra shorts? Definitely. "The Apparition" profiting on late summer boredom? Sure. Maybe a crazy, kids-are-back-in-school surge for "Hope Springs"? Sounds right.
But there, at #7, was a film that sent everyone racing to Google: "2016: Obama's America." What was this? When did it come out? How the heck did it beat "Premium Rush" and "Hope Springs" when it didn't star everyone not in "The Expendables 2"?
"2016: Obama's America" is a documentary by conservative author, former Reagan staffer and King's College president Dinesh D'Souza. It's less a documentary (a genre that is often agenda based, but at its ideal, is factually based) and more conjecture, as D'Souza alleges that Obama's re-election will see him enact his master plan: The destruction of America. Causing America to fall and reemerge as a socialist state will then enact a sort of global crisis, with the idea being that a worldwide collapse is a "revenge" for centuries of Western colonialism. D'Souza's hardest evidence of this is that Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., was rabidly anti-colonial, and she posits that whatever views the father shared, the son will avenge.
The film has raked in $6.5 million this weekend, the abrupt culmination of an enthusiastic grass-roots campaign, and a surge of buzz from the Republican National Convention. It's made a surprising $9.3 million over its seven-week run, a figure that could easily double or triple now that it's appeared on the mainstream radar. It's already the highest grossing conservative documentary of all time (an admittedly slim field at this point in time), so it has nowhere to go but up.
High grossing documentaries have traditionally been the territory of the left, and represented by the pop culture force that is Michael Moore. The success and buzz around "2016" is something we haven't seen since Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which was also released in an election year (2004), and during one as vicious and divided as this one. Like D'Souza, Moore made no secret of his hope that the documentary would influence the election, and remove then-President George W. Bush from the White House. "This may be the first time a film has this kind of impact," he told USA Today.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" was awash in controversy and attacks from conservatives. Miramax was actually barred from releasing it by its parent company, Disney, which left Moore scrambling for a distributor. Move America Forward, a Republican group based in California, attempted to get theater owners to refuse to show the film. In response, MoveOn.org enacted an Internet campaign to encourage people to see the film.
"It's un-American to say to people, 'You don't even have the right to see this movie and make up your own mind,' " MoveOn PAC field director Adam Ruben said. Citizens United, another conservative organization, filed two complaint with the FEC alleging that advertisements for the film violated election laws; the FEC rejected both complaints.
Even former president George H.W. Bush took the time to come out against it, calling it "a vicious personal attack on my son" and Moore a "slimeball."
So far, no such heat or controversy has followed "2016." The left hasn't launched a campaign of suppression. The AP ran a fact-check for the film, pointing out many of D'Souza's claims are mere speculation, and ignore many hard facts of President Obama's policies, his biography and the myriad of reasons behind the world's economic woes. The closest anyone has come to matching the right's fury against Moore is Esquire's Mark Warren, who renewed his challenge D'Souza to a physical fistfight.
If the film grows in popularity, this may change. There may be more roaring from the left (perhaps even some truly dramatic stuff like Warren's fistfight), but at this stage it doesn't look like anyone will demand the film be suppressed, or file complaints with the FEC, or even raise too much of a fuss. (Sadly, both of President Obama's parents are deceased, so neither will be able refute the allegations, or call D'Souza a slimeball for him.) At the moment, the political left seems to run a fact-check piece on the AP, and otherwise allow people to see it and judge as they see fit. If they maintain that stance, it's admirable. It's the freedom our country was based on. Free speech for everyone, even if we don't agree!
That doesn't mean the film is going unnoticed. Pundits are debating what effect it will have on the upcoming 2012 election, the consensus seems to be that it's already preaching to its intended choir. These are, after all, the sort of claims against President Obama that right-leaning news organizations, pundits and opponents have lobbied against Obama already. No one who doesn't already believe the worst about our president will be swayed by it, and that's probably why no one on the left is pushing for it to be shut down. Conspiracy theories about our president and his background have been popular since he took office, and no matter how many of them are debunked, a new variation emerges. D'Souza's documentary feels like the next expression of the birth certificate controversy, and one more difficult to disprove since it's based in theory and analysis of a man none of us know personally.
Lest we seem biased, the same can easily be said of Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which drew heavily on an assessment of Bush's personality. Few can forget the mockery he made of Bush's frozen expression on September 11th while reading "My Pet Goat" to young schoolchildren. How can we infer fact from such things? We can't. It merely plays to those who see what they want. It's evidence that's based purely on emotion, not fact. It was impossible to disprove or debunk many of Moore's arguments against Bush because they too were based on inference of what Bush might be thinking at a given time.
" is yet another indicator of what is happening to American politics,” John Johannes, a professor of political science told the Christian Science Monitor. “Trying to pin down candidates for their backgrounds more than their policies; a focus on personalities more than issues; and a play to anger and fear rather than to thoughtfulness and judgment.”
David Mark, former senior editor of POLITICO, feels it may add some energy to opponent Mitt Romney's campaign, and rally those who may have simply been content to cast a vote for Romney. "It could energize the base into all the kinds of things that can turn out voters, like walking the precinct, manning phone banks, and all the kinds of volunteer stuff that juices up supporters," he told the Christian Science Monitor. Everyone likes to say they don’t want negative campaigning and movies like this, but the truth is that the reason we continue to have it is because it works. Negativity gets people to participate."
What will "2016" do for audiences? If this is the right's "Fahrenheit 9/11", and their moment to shine on the blockbuster audience scene, what will happen? Lines around the block? Tickets selling for hundreds on Ebay, a'la "The Dark Knight Rises"?
Probably not. Remember when "Fahrenheit 9/11" actually came out? There were no rights, no protests, no marches for or against the film and its subject. If you wanted to see it, it was there. While it made a lot of money, there was no frenzy, no water cooler shame if you hadn't gone. And when Election Day rolled around? Bush was re-elected.
Those who voted for him did so, regardless of Moore's documentary, as did those who voted against. It changed no one's mind. It just played to its audience, and if anything, fueled the sense of persecution and anger in the American right.
What Moore's documentary did do was create the template for "2016: Obama's America." If this documentary begins to approach the sort of gross that "Fahrenheit" did, then you'll be seeing a lot more pundits making timebomb documentaries, and shipping them out in election years, hoping to profit on those hungry and angry enough to see the opponent torn down on big screen as well as the small.