What has Michael Moore and digital technology wrought? Now anyone with a political agenda and low-cost digital camera can make a movie and call it a documentary. Even enterprises that at best are vanity projects and at worst badly disguised and overly long attack ads are taken seriously by audiences and box-office observers.
That is precisely the shape of things in "2016: Obama's America," which promises to demystify the president but does more to illuminate its filmmaker, Dinesh D'Souza, and his ego instead.
The conservative author, who wrote and directed the film with John Sullivan, draws liberally from his book "The Roots of Obama's Rage." The book, in turn, draws on D'Souza's life how he left his native India to study in America and how those disparate experiences shaped his political point of view.
The film, released in late July, went from a handful of theaters to wide release with more than $6.2 million in ticket sales over the weekend, the better to ride the GOP convention coattails in Tampa, Fla., this week.
Since "2016" is unlikely to be the last DIY polemic we will see in the coming years, the question becomes: How does it measure up as a film? Where is the line between documentary and propaganda?
What is certain is that "2016" is already a commercial success. In a world where $14 million puts you into the top five moneymakers of all time among political documentaries, its $9.1 million puts "2016" within striking distance.
It is worth noting that documentaries don't necessarily promise pure objectivity. Moore, the defining figure in crafting the modern-day political rant, never has. From his first relentless pursuit of General Motors Chief Executive Roger Smith in 1989's "Roger & Me," the in-your-face filmmaker has been blunt about his intentions. But Moore's work and the genre itself come with an implicit understanding that whatever truths emerge, they were ultimately forged by the process, not set in stone beforehand.
That "2016" was built on a book is one of its fundamental weaknesses, its course determined before the first frame was shot. The film is not after new insight; rather, it's intent on laying out the arguments of a man who has given the same lecture countless times. That makes for a sluggish film. Even its outrage falls flat.
The film begins with D'Souza, once a political adviser to President Ronald Reagan, drawing parallels between his life and Obama's born in the same year, Ivy League degrees earned at the same time, both politically engaged, skin equally dark.
While D'Souza's quiet, scholarly sensibility serves him well on the TV talk-show circuit, a relief from the intense rhetoric that reigns, it works against him on screen. As he sits, legs crossed, addressing the camera like a professor, the film begins to feel like a class you wish you had cut.
The many dramatic reenactments don't help its cause. There are seven setups involving more than 100 credited actors.
The core thesis in "2016" is that Obama's politics come from Third World influences from his father in Kenya and his early years spent with his mother in Indonesia.
D'Souza argues that this approach explains everything from health-care reform to a reduction in the nuclear arsenal.