Ten years after 2016: Obama’s America became the 6th highest-grossing documentary of all time (or second when excluding Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson concert films, that 2005 penguin movie, and a 3-D IMAX tour through oceans), I thought I knew what to expect from a Dinesh D’Souza movie. Critics will gleefully revile it, but its core audience will get around to it eventually—whether at the theater or when the DVD and its corresponding tie-in book simultaneously hit Wal-Mart shelves two months after its release. D’Souza will again assume his role as unlikely star, narrating and even reenacting events in a riff off the persona of his primary influence and antagonist, Michael Moore—whose Fahrenheit 9/11 somehow retains its status as the #1 documentary ever made. The production value will remain glossy, culminating in a finale packed with patriotic fervor—usually a heightened musical number that attempts to galvanize its audience through the months leading up to Election Day.
Though D’Souza’s movies serve as a corrective for an industry that relishes the absence of conservative voices, one cannot ignore that the narrative and stylistic structure Moore pioneered and D’Souza adopted has drastically altered pop culture’s perception of what a documentary is (a topic we grappled with last year). Rather than serve as windows into other worlds or nuanced takes on their often polemic subjects, documentaries that register in the public consciousness almost exclusively operate in the Moore-D’Souza mode, playing to the faithful with a shrewdness not out of place in advertising.
Going into D’Souza’s latest, I prepared for more of the same—perhaps even a slight increase in quality, especially given that Infidel, his first foray into fiction as a producer, was one of the few theatrical bright spots of Fall 2020. Yet, while leaving a showing at a mom-and-pop movie theater/mini-golf fun center in the dubious ballot hub of Fulton County, Georgia, that played Mules for a full two weeks, I experienced a reaction that a documentary film hasn’t elicited from me in years: I had questions.
2000 Mules has defied all expectations, its reception the most paradoxical of any movie in recent memory. Despite substituting the wide theatrical release customary of the filmmaker’s pre-pandemic projects with a catch-all strategy that included a two-night only premiere with Fathom Events, a scattershot run at Cinemark and a handful of indie theaters, and a day-and-date release on DVD and premium streaming, the film may be D’Souza’s biggest hit. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 15% of likely voters have seen 2000 Mules. While its idiosyncratic distribution model has made tracking 2000 Mules’ gross difficult, applying this percentage to the 159,633,396 ballots cast in 2020 (whether legal or not), means that the film has garnered an estimated audience of 24 million thus far. Considering the average movie ticket price in 2021 reached $9.57, the film’s pure theatrical release could have generated $229 million domestically, more than any other movie this year barring The Batman, Dr, Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Top Gun: Maverick, and Jurassic World: Dominion–quite a reach for a project with an actual reported gross of less than $1.5 million.
More importantly, Rasmussen found that 77% of the likely voters who saw Mules felt its presentation of evidence D’Souza gleaned through cellphone geotracking data bolstered their skepticism of the 2020 election’s integrity. Such may explain in part the mainstream press’s strategy of alternately demonizing and shunning the film. Legacy media hasn’t just covered 2000 Mules, it has positively obsessed over it in the same manner as a high-schooler giving a book report on a novel he hasn’t read. Additionally, the documentary’s central figures, True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht and analyst Gregg Phillips, have endured a spate of half-baked hit pieces about their financial dealings. This manufactured scandal is, of course, the product of a media industry that actively suppressed clearcut duplicity from Squad stars Ilhan Omar and AOC, whose election-law violations were much more flagrant than those that led to D’Souza’s own politically motivated prison stint during the Obama years. There’s a reason 2000 Mules has only generated one actual review on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s clearly not a lack of audience interest.
By characterizing 2000 Mules in such a manner, mainstream outlets seek to obscure the very real issues related to ballot harvesting and the other rampant election integrity violations D’Souza uncovers for the express purpose of painting its maker as a conspiracy theorist. After all, it’s in the press’s best interest for the public to read extensive fact checks instead of actually viewing D’Souza’s case firsthand, which is why such features on Mules have become Summer 2022’s hottest journalism trend despite that all its entries willfully misread the film’s actual content.
While it does make a compelling argument, D’ Souza’s film is less profound as a prosecutable case against election fraudsters than as a meditation on the relationship between subjectivity and surveillance. As D’Souza, his wife, Debbie, and Phillips take a deep dive into the data, the movie largely asks its audience to watch scenes of the trio watching the activity of alleged mules–many of whom are in the process of taking their own photos and video of events. Since D’Souza’s punditry career evolved into filmmaking, two aspects of his approach have differed from Moore’s: his insistence that his films offer corrections to the dominant narrative and his persona as an erudite finder of facts. Moore’s films are, in the end, always about Moore. By comparison, 2000 Mules is all about searching, positioning its thematic preoccupations more in line with cerebral works, such as Paul Schrader’s transcendental First Reformed or the late entries in Jean-Luc Godard’s filmography than the know-it-allness of D’Souza’s well-fed progressive foil. Since Obama’s America, the primary visual motif of D’Souza’s oeuvre has been a profile shot of the bespectacled man himself hunched over a computer or book, an image 2000 Mules extends to D’Souza’s frantic Googling and energetic phone calls to his sources.
Embodying the role of indefatigable sleuth on and off camera, D’Souza has never shied away from addressing criticism of Mules via his podcast from those who make legitimate critiques of the film such as its refusal to name the nonprofits accused of misdeeds or their funding sources. Tellingly, Moore has yet to fully address Dave Kopel’s “59 Deceits of Fahrenheit 9/11” lobbed against the blockbuster 18 years ago. Nor has Moore adequately contextualized Harlan Jacobson’s ethical objections to the ballcapped-pedagogue’s misleading editing in his 1989 debut, Roger & Me, about the ramifications of GM shuttering a plant in Flint, Michigan. He’s never had to because the establishment press has provided cover ever since his coronation.
Consequently, that the media elite’s objections to 2000 Mules have escaped the ridicule they merit is par for the course. The most consistent refrain amid the many nitpicks from the abundant opposition is that geotracking is not an exact science and the alleged mules could be on their way to work or merely live along the route between multiple ballot boxes and nonprofits in high-trafficked metro areas, a criticism to which the film’s admitted dearth of video footage lends credence. D’Souza attributes this failing to multiple causes from unusable angles to intentional neglect of the law. Regardless, such critiques ignore Phillips’s explicit statement in the film that the methodology intentionally excluded those whose day-to-day pattern of life overlapped with the locations as well as the convincing video footage that accompanies certain data points. Additionally, D’Souza repeatedly demonstrates that most of the ballot stuffing occurring at boxes in front of libraries or other government buildings happened in the middle of the night, which most popular fact-check features downplay or outright ignore. Legacy media has marveled over geotracking’s ability to place January 6th’s insurrectionists in front of a particular doorway in the Capitol but dismissed the same technology’s potential to corroborate that an individual pinged between liberal nonprofit offices and at least ten ballot boxes on a given night at 3 a.m. If only that televised political soap opera by way of reality TV currently clogging primetime could boast D’Souza’s audience numbers.
The other most prominent critique of Mules centers on its biased rogues’ gallery of experts. D’Souza likely didn’t aim to market 2000 Mules as an upstart outsider. However, the unrelenting opposition to his claims should indicate that a bipartisan panel of talking heads was never an option. One of the most striking aspects of the film is his meeting of the minds–featuring Salem Media conservative all-stars Dennis Prager, Larry Elder, Charlie Kirk, Dr. Sebastian Gorka, and Eric Metaxas–that represents a host of opinions on election interference, ranging from Elder’s firsthand knowledge as a candidate in California’s recent gubernatorial recall to Prager’s skepticism that the film challenges, though doesn’t entirely vanquish, by the time the credits roll. Even among his fellow conservative intellectual A-Listers, D’Souza is dropping bombs, a risk to his own persona as the most bookish and docile of this in-crowd.
All controversy and media embargos aside, 2000 Mules is both an entertaining and compelling look at the 2020 election that insists its viewers become better informed rather than take it at face value. D’Souza’s talent lies in decentering himself as the omnipotent tourguide. His goal is not media hagiography; rather, it’s a viewership educated enough to realize the sham of a press referring to Trump’s accusations of voter fraud as the utterly debunked “Big Lie” while concurrently gloating about the “Shadow Campaign that saved the 2020 election” (all this apparently without the long-term memory to remember its relentless diatribes about corporate money and Citizens United). Unlike Moore and the wave of nonfiction mimic men he has spawned, D’Souza acknowledges he doesn't know all the answers, an admission all too rare in the documentary world.
2000 Mules is in select theatres, available on disc, and streaming through its website.