A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that America -- a documentary film from Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan -- has a distinctly conservative point of view. It uses interviews, newsreel footage, reenactments (some showing violent battles with rifles, bayonets, and on-camera deaths), as well as speeches and the written words of America's founders to claim that there's an ongoing conspiracy, fuelled by leftist radicals, to shame America, undermine the country's principles, and ultimately cause its destruction by "suicide" from within. D'Souza is the interviewer, the narrator, and the lecturer. A few short scenes depart from actual history -- i.e. in a reenactment, George Washington is killed by a sniper's bullet, but he's soon on screen again, alive and well, as he leads the country in its formative years. How this film will be perceived depends mostly on viewers' existing attitudes and beliefs. For those who come to the film with no preconceptions, it’s crucial to have resources for fact-checking and to understand who the players are and what they hope to achieve.
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What's the story?
Divided into three parts, AMERICA argues that the American people are being tricked into believing that the country unfairly bears responsibility for tragic circumstances that occurred throughout its history. And that, the film states is no accident, positing that covert forces hope they can polarize the nation by shaming American citizens, remaking the country as a leftist socialist nation with little influence in the world. Filmed reenactments are used in an attempt to shore up these theories. Great statesmen and thinkers (Abraham Lincoln, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ronald Reagan, Frederick Douglass, etc.) are quoted and portrayed. Academics and politicians are interviewed at length, as are Native American, Mexican-American, and African-American activists. In Part One, the film lists and develops the five crimes for which the United States is mistakenly blamed: Theft of Land (and genocide against the Native American population), Theft of Territory (the victim: Mexico), Theft of Labor (slavery and the resulting segregation and racism), Theft of Resources (victim: the world), and Theft of the American Dream (victim: the American people; perpetrator: greedy capitalists). Part Two refutes each of those charges, one by one (i.e., America wasn't the only country that had slaves; whites were slaves elsewhere; there were "more black slave owners than white ones," etc.). Part Three concerns the "Who...?" That is, who wants us to take the blame, and why? The film's answer: The conspiracy of shame is primarily the product of the teachings of an unscrupulous radical: Saul Alinsky (a writer and political activist known as the founder of "community organizing"). His protegees? Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, among others.
Is it any good?
For those who are inclined to agree with D'Souza and his colleagues, America will be an example of documentary filmmaking at its most enlightening. For those who disagree, it will seem a shoddy diatribe. In any case, it's an argument masquerading as a movie. While some of the performances in the reenactments are excellent (Don Taylor as Lincoln is particularly good) and some visuals of the country show its awesome beauty, the majority of the film is overly dramatic (for example, the relentless pounding of a blacksmith's forge is intercut with lovely landscapes), unnecessarily violent (bloody battle scenes with multiple deaths), and filled with hypotheses that are thin at best, inaccurate and purposefully provocative at worst. Mostly, it attempts to justify America's behavior by pointing out similar behavior by other countries.
Paranoia is the film's most unsettling element. Particularly disturbing is D'Souza's handling of some of the interviewees (for instance, a spokeswoman for the Sioux tribe and a professor of African-American studies), who seem like they might disagree with him if they fully understood his purpose. They bring a wide variety of opinions, perspectives, and motives to the microphone, but -- after the interviews -- D'Souza manages to refute the evidence of the experts who disagree with his premise. In fact, he uses their own words, earnestness, and trust to bolster his own claims in opposition. Finally, having previously taken on Obama in 2016: Obama's America, D'Souza here focuses on Hillary Clinton. "Reenactments" of her college days show her to be in the thrall of Saul Alinsky's radicalism and secretly working to undermine the American way of life as she moves forward. Bottom line? The worth of this film is definitely in the eye of the beholder.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the use of historical reenactments to heighten a film's message. In dramatic movies "based on" or "inspired by" true stories, viewers have come to accept the fact that the filmmakers imagine what might happened in individual scenes. Is this true for documentaries, or should there be a different standard?
Discuss the various goals of filmmaking: to inform, to entertain, or to persuade. What is the primary purpose of America? How do you know? Why is it important to understand the filmmakers' purpose?
Do you think documentaries are required to be objective? Why or why not?
Did this movie show you or help you "imagine a world without America"? If not, why do you think that phrase/tagline was part of the film's marketing?
- In theaters: July 4, 2014
- On DVD or streaming: October 28, 2014
- Cast: Dinesh D'Souza, Don Taylor, Rett Terrell
- Directors: John Sullivan, Dinesh D'Souza
- Studio: D'Souza Entertainment
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: History
- Run time: 105 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some violent images
- Last updated: March 13, 2020
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