Conservative documentary 2016: Obama's America was a surprise box office smash, but does it deserve an Oscar nomination? Well, it's not going to get one since it didn't make the Academy's list of finalists this week, but its filmmakers are now calling foul, insisting that the movie got shut out for its right wing stance. Paul Bond of the Hollywood Reporter reports that Gerald Molen—who does have an Oscar under his belt for Schindler's List—said that the documentary's controversial director Dinesh D'Souza "warned him" about the fact that this might happen. "The action confirms my opinion that the bias against anything from a conservative point of view is dead on arrival in Hollywood circles. The film’s outstanding success means that America went to see the documentary in spite of how Hollywood feels about it," Molen said. D'Souza himself added: "By ignoring 2016, the top performing box-office hit of 2012, and pretending that films like Searching for Sugar Man and This Is Not a Film are more deserving of an Oscar, our friends in Hollywood have removed any doubt average Americans may have had that liberal political ideology, not excellence, is the true standard of what receives awards."
But looking at Rotten Tomatoes, 2016 hardly stacks up to those films when it comes to critical reception, usually a pretty good test of what might be considered Oscar-worthy — especially when it comes to the crowded documentary field. The 15 films on the Academy shortlist have an average "fresh" rating of 94 percent, while 2016 falls in the "rotten" column with 27 percent. Searching for Sugar Man, a film about folk musician Rodríguez who became an icon in apartheid South Africa, is 95 percent "fresh." This Is Not a Film, about a director under house arrest in Tehran, has 100 percent of critics backing it.
As the D'Souza film came out this summer to huge per-theater returns at box office, reviews concluded that it would win fans among those already predisposed to believe its theories. Michael O'Sullivan at the Washington Post called it an "infomercial." Richard Corliss at Time said: "Every anti-Obama argument D’Souza makes from the right could be made, more forcefully, from the left." Even Joe Leydon's review at Variety, which was deemed fresh, noted, "And while it's highly unlikely that anyone predisposed to championing Obama would be won over by the sound and fury here, there's no gainsaying the value of '2016' as a sort of Cliffs Notes precis of the conservative case against the re-election of our current U.S. president (whose second term, it should be noted, actually would end in January 2017)." Another "fresh" review from Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic noted that while the movie is similar to Michael Moore's liberal documentaries—which have gotten Academy love—"Moore does at least allow the other side to be heard from, something D'Souza doesn't do." Though he adds that Moore does use "straw men." (Moore, it should be noted is on the Academy's board of governors for the documentary branch.)
Of course there's the all-important counter argument: critics are just pawns of the lefty organization! And that might hold up when you look at the Rotten Tomatoes audience rating for 2016: 75 percent said they liked it. The same amount that said they liked This Is Not a Film. (The average audience rating for the shortlisted documentaries stands at about 83 percent, accounting for the fact that 100 percent "want to see" The Gatekeepers.) While 2016's success on that front could point to a liberal Oscar bias, it could also speak to the fact that the movie was able to draw upon a conservative base that already agreed with its premise.