Death of a PresidentReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/27/06 14:02:41
Although the hype and controversy that has surrounded the film since it premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, the British faux-documentary “Death of a President” does not dwell excessively on the details of its central event, the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush, preferring instead to spend its time dealing with the potential aftermath of such an event. This will no doubt come as a disappointment to those disaffected people hoping to view it as some perverse form of wish fulfillment. This will also no doubt come as a disappointment to conservative critics hoping to use the film as a lighting rod to fire up their base in the days before the upcoming election. Unfortunately, anyone who actually does show up at the theater hoping to see a film that deals with the potential aftermath of such an event is likely to come away disappointed with this effort as well. This is a movie that takes a provocative premise and a lot of impressive wizardry and blows it on a story that grows increasingly trite as it goes on.The conceit of the film is that it is a British news documentary from 2008 that has been put together to examine the 2007 assassination of Bush in Chicago after a speech, the hunt for the assassin and how such an event can change and shape national and international policy. At the time, proposes the film, tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have increased dramatically while on the home front, Bush is still a lightning rod for an ever-growing number of protestors coming out to march against both the continuing war and the further erosion of civil liberties that have been forced through in the name of civil liberties. Nevertheless, he arrives in Chicago and while protestors and police clash in the streets, he delivers a speech to an economic group from the cozy confines of the Sheraton hotel. As he emerges from the hotel, shots ring out from nowhere and within a few hours, he is pronounced dead.
At the risk of sounding tacky, I must say that these early scenes are by far the most effective in the film. The blending of cleverly edited archival footage with newly shot film is pretty convincing in the way that it captures the tense air of a city that is on the edge and threatening to blow up in an instant. The actual assassination is also depicted in a realistic and compelling manner–everything happens so quickly and suddenly that, despite the subtle hint given by the title, we don’t quite realize what has happened until it is over. And while it would have been easy enough to slant the depiction of Bush to show him solely as a tunnel-visioned, barely articulate idiot, director Gabriel Range has instead taken the time to make him look and sound genuinely presidential and multi-dimensional–granted, this must have take a long time in the editing room to pull off–in order to give its fictional assassination a genuine impact.
It is at this point, however, that the film becomes an exercise in frustration by choosing the wrong story to focus on. On the one hand, it quickly becomes clear that Range is using the assassination, the immediate social and political impact of such an event and the fearful willingness of the public and the media to go along with these measures no matter what the cost, as a way to explore how the same things occurred after the equally cataclysmic events of 9/11–here, the even-more intrusive Patriot Act III is quickly rushed into law and President Cheney attempts to manipulate the situation as an excuse to invade Syria–and how Bush’s actions back then may have inadvertently led to his own demise. Unfortunately, Range only lets this conceit bubble under the surface and instead turns his focus onto the investigation of three suspects, the conviction of one (who doesn’t have much physical evidence tying him to the scene but who is of Middle Eastern descent and therefore fits the suspicions that the killing was a terrorist attack) and the suspicions that someone else may have done the deed after all. By taking this path, Range takes what could have been an incisive piece of political commentary and transforms it into just another draggy police procedural. Not only does this make the film as a whole fairly uninteresting but by building towards a surprise twist ending, it screws up the entire conceit that we are watching a 2008 documentary by trying to hide revelations that 2008 viewers would presumably already be intimately familiar with.As a technical exercise, “Death of a President” is pretty impressive (the seams only really begin to show during one sequence in which footage of Dick Cheney eulogizing Ronald Reagan has been manipulated into a Bush tribute) and it is just intriguing enough at the beginning to keep you interested even after things start to go south. Eventually, though, it begins to grow tedious and you are likely to be more outraged over how it squanders its initial premise than in the premise itself. This is the kind of film that starts off asking “What if?” but by the end, you are more likely to be asking “Who cares?”
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