It takes 90 minutes for Dinesh D'Souza's rambling, mistitled "America: Imagine the World Without Her" to get to its real point. There's D'Souza, arch-conservative Ivy League immigrant, creator of the popular anti-Obama screed "2016: Obama's America," in handcuffs.
"I made a mistake," he says to the conservative choir he's preaching to. We're supposed to know he pleaded guilty to felony federal campaign finance law violations back in May and that he faces prison time when he's sentenced later this year.
Snippets of assorted Fox TV commentators link that conviction to his earlier film criticizing Barack Obama. The implication is that he's a martyr to the cause. And for those in his choir a little slower to catch on, he cuts to an actor playing Abe Lincoln, giving his "farewell address," a speech freighted with symbolism.
"I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return."
Cut to John Wilkes Booth, an assassination and a great Republican lost to history.
What doesn't matter is that Lincoln actually gave that address as he left Illinois for Washington in 1861, four years before his assassination.
What does is D'Souza's almost comical gall at daring to make the comparison.
"America" sets itself up as a piece of documentary counter-history, opening with George Washington not surviving the 1777 defeat at the Battle of Brandywine, which causes Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty to dissolve. Where would the world be if America wasn't here?
But D'Souza abandons that as he posits his main thesis -- that a conspiracy by academics and activists has created a culture of "shame" about American history. He lists five "indictments" that Native American activists, Mexican-American academics, African-American leaders, leftist historians and the Occupy movement have sold the American public -- that we stole Indian land, Mexican land, African slaves, global colonies (and oil) and that capitalists are stealing from each and every one of us, even today. Then he sets out to dismiss each of those indictments.
He's on his safest ground going after historian Howard Zinn, whose "A People's History of the United States" is a demythologized look at assorted American wrongs, dating from European settlement of the New World, to slavery, Indian "genocide" and through Vietnam and today's "Oil Wars."
Zinn is a darling of the left -- Hollywood liberals embraced him -- which makes him a good conservative whipping boy. Yes, his book is taught in a lot of America's colleges and universities. No, D'Souza doesn't mention that it's typically taught as an added text to counter the standard narrative of American history. Using the shrill Zinn along with more conventional texts teaches students critical thinking.
D'Souza takes issue with the notion that keeping "conquered lands" was something we invented, punctures the use of "genocide" to describe the impact of disease on Native American populations in the early years after European settlement and counters the idea that the Sioux Nation, for instance, should refuse compensation for lands taken from them in violation of treaty because they expect the lands to be given back to them. The Sioux themselves seized those lands from other tribes, so maybe they should cash Uncle Sam's check and shut up.
D'Souza whines that "capitalists are under fire" and flings the usual hero entrepreneurs up on screen (Steve Jobs, et al.) while avoiding mentioning rapacious corporate compensation culture, Wall Street chicanery or high-finance gambling.
He dismisses the notion of any lingering impact of slavery on African-Americans, 150 years after the fact, with a couple of up-by-their-bootstraps anecdotes, and sidesteps the fiasco of Vietnam by interviewing a pilot who was shot down, held prisoner and tortured by the Vietnamese.
His reenactments include that one Frenchman conservatives love, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote so admiringly about our "character" -- 180 years ago. D'Souza could probably have found better credentialed historians to weigh in on his side of these topics, making for a serious and civil debate but is generally content to aim lower in that regard. Canadian-born Sen. Ted Cruz is tossed up as an expert on Texas history, one of the few laughs in "America."
What he's doing, it turns out, is lowering the viewer's standards of proof for a vigorous return to "2016" territory, a hatchet job on Obama and Obamacare that tries to tie everything to a 1960s "radical" organizer who might have influenced the president and, of course, Hillary Clinton.
D'Souza cannot help himself. He's discovered a way to get rich hurling Obama-baiting red meat to an audience that cannot get enough of that, so he abandons any pretense of making a movie about how this country should have a more vigorous debate about its image, its principles and just what the truth is about its history. Well, don't begrudge him that. He will need a nest egg if he goes to prison.
Rating: PG-13 (violent images)
Cast: Dinesh D'Souza, John Koopman, Ted Cruz
Directors and writers: Dinesh D'Souza and John Sullivan
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes