“Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party” is now the top-grossing documentary of 2016, placing ninth last weekend in 1,216 theaters and grossing $4.6 million to date. Together with his 2012 film, the $33.4 million hit “2016: Obama’s America,” right-wing writer/activist/director Dinesh D’Souza is now the conservative Michael Moore.
In 10 days of release, “Hillary’s America” is a bigger performer than high-profile arthouse releases “Swiss Army Man,” “The Neon Demon,” “Everybody Wants Some!”, and “Midnight Special.”
And the doc beats out Moore’s recent “Where to Invade Next?,” which underperformed at $3.8 million, lower than his four most recent films since “Bowling for Columbine” as well as his first, “Roger and Me,” in 1989. His biggest hit was Cannes winner “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which grossed $119 million, the highest-grossing documentary of all time. He also has three others (“Columbine,” “Sicko,” and “Capitalism: A Love Story”) among the 20 biggest.
D’Souza isn’t close to that level, although his first three films all nabbed attention. His first, “2016: Obama’s America,” released at the heart of the 2012 presidential election, is #6 on the top 20 list at $33 million, ahead of “An Inconvenient Truth” and all the Moore films except “Fahrenheit.”
While we don’t know if “Hillary’s America” will approach those levels, it’s off to a strong start. What may be most telling about “Hillary” is its Sunday number declined only 16% from Saturday, while the rest of the top 10 fell 20%-27%. That indicates strong word of mouth and reason to think it can prosper.
Beyond ideologies, there are stark differences between D’Souza and Moore. D’Souza’s docs play far outside the big-city/art house/upscale market that support most doc features, and receive almost no critical support. (“Hillary” earned an all-time low of 1 out of 100 on Metacritic, and landed a 1-star pan in Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post). Moore won an Oscar for “Bowling For Columbine,” while D’Souza’s films won’t see any respect via awards or film festivals.
But it would appear that D’Souza built on Moore’s template. Like Moore, he was an established journalist prior to his filmmaking debut: Moore for a Michigan alternative weekly and briefly editing Mother Jones, D’Souza as a regular contributor to conservative think-tank publications and elsewhere. Both received Roman Catholic educations. Both began their activism while still in their teens. As their careers rose, both became public figures on cable and elsewhere (D’Souza a regular on Fox News, Moore on Bill Maher).
Their films also bear strong similarities. They are position-oriented, meant to push a point of view aggressively, irrespective of traditional notions of even-handedness or giving the viewer any choice about any point of view other than the filmmaker’s. They discard subtlety in favor of hammering points home, mainly to the already converted. Their films foreground their directors as narrators. (Moore in particular positions himself as a reporter, investigating the issue at hand.) Both heap scorn upon their targets. Both thrive on immediacy and contemporary attitudes. Both make some on their sides uncomfortable (Moore for his support for Ralph Nader in 2000, D’Souza for his pleading guilty to federal felony campaign finance violations which earned him house arrest and a fine, incorporated into his latest film).
And perhaps most importantly, both are representatives of a bisected America that listens mainly to its own voices and accepts them as “the truth,” responding more strongly to the emotion than intellectual arguments. Lack of subtlety is a feature of their wide appeal.
Moore’s films are broader ranging in topic; they’ve included the decline of the car industry, gun violence, the causes of 9/11, American medical care, and how foreign governments deal with issues familiar to Americans. D’Souza’s tend to deal more with past history, including recreations of events with actors.
But at their core both have shown that their followers will go to cinemas and see politically pointed documentaries, not just in select theaters but all around the country, side by side with the latest studio hits.
This would have surprised producer Samuel Goldwyn, to whom is attributed the quote: “If you have a message, call Western Union.”