A film review by Craig J. Koban

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT jjj
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2006, no MPAA, 93 mins.

Zahra Abi Zikri: Hend Ayoub / Larry Stafford: Brian Boland / Eleanor Drake: Becky Ann Baker / Greg Turner: Robert Mangiardi / Sam McCarthy: Jay Patterson

Directed by Gabriel Range /  Written by Range and Simon Finch

One of my favourite comics books as a child was the wickedly inventive series “WHAT IF…” by Marvel Comics, which ran for a scant 47 issues from 1977 to 1984.  The ingenious aspect of the series is that it took the legitimate canon of the mainstream comic heroes of the company and radically turned them upside down. 

The series explored the “road not traveled” by some of Marvel’s biggest and most successful characters.  Some of the issues had titles and covers that instantly intrigued.  You could not help but pick one up.  Some of my most cherished issues were WHAT IF DR. DOOM WAS A HERO?, WHAT IF CAPTAIN AMERICA RAN FOR PRESIDENT?, WHAT IF CONAN THE BARBARIAN WALKED THE EARTH TODAY? and – shock of all shockers – WHAT IF SPIDER-MAN NEVER WANTED TO FIGHT CRIME?

Gabriel Range’s DEATH OF A PRESIDENT reminded me considerably of that Marvel Comics series.  Am I trivializing the film by drawing that analogy?  Far from it.  The film is – from its very inception and implementation – a stirring, sensationalistic, intriguing, and – I must emphasize – dramatic WHAT IF drama that deals with the ramifications of the death of US President George W. Bush.  The film has been under a considerable amount of heated controversy since it made a critical splash earlier this year at Toronto’s International Film Festival, where it received rousing accolades.  Range’s work is a documentary - sort of - in the way it conjures up an eerie and suspenseful telling of a successful assassination attempt of the 43rd American President and the following FBI investigation to bring his killer to justice. 

On certain levels, it can be said that the film has a morbid premise (surely, who would find entertainment value in a film detailing the fictitious death of a real person still holding public office?).  However, let it be said that DEATH OF A PRESIDENT is not deplorable in its stances or commentary.  It’s no where near the anti-Bush diatribe that you may be expecting, nor is it sadistically amoral in its dramatic killing of the President. 

The amazing aspect of the fictitious documentary is in how compelling and assured it is with the subject matter and how it uses its basic premise to make larger points about the current socio-politic climate that we live it.  This is not a film that wishes to burn Bush in effigy because he is - as some think - a vindictive and ruthless war criminal for his actions invading Iraq.  The film is not a mean-spirited character assassination piece that tries to go out of its way to make us believe that Bush’s death would be a good thing.  DEATH OF A PRESIDENT is surprisingly sympathetic towards the President in question, but it’s most calculating and sobering aspect is that it uses his fictional demise to say something larger about how the world operates today.  Because of that, Range’s film is not a threatening work to the masses, but one that is electrifying and provocative. 

Range is no stranger to making grand leaps into what if.  His previous works, like 2003’s THE DAY BRITAIN STOPPED, detailed how the UK would cope with the loss of their public transportation system.  Also, Range’s film would certainly not be the first time that a filmmaker has used real life figures and themes and sandwiched them in with fictional storylines to make social and political statements.  In essence, there has been a definitive precedence for this type of docudrama. 

It’s kind of alarming, in hindsight, to see that DEATH OF A PRESIDENT has been seemingly banned from screenings in a number of US cities.  It is assuredly no more offensive than other recent films that dive into painful subject matters, like UNITED 93 or WORLD TRADE CENTER.  Range’s film is not ghoulishly depraved, nor does it take great satisfaction in the killing of a world leader.  Instead, what he does here is make Bush’s death a sad and tragic event that puts the US’s domestic and foreign policy into a tailspin.  The film, by the time the end credits roll by, is an icy and troubling reflection on how the current US administration abuses the civil liberties of its citizens.  It makes the viewer watch the unthinkable and then uses that as a catalyst for dealing with their own internal political leanings.

An assassination of a US President is also not entirely unheard of.  Even if a film deals with one that is still holding office that alone should not instantly warrant viewers turning a blind eye.  Yet, it’s sure easy to see how some viewers may have a difficult time watching the film.  DEATH OF A PRESIDENT is not some horribly assembled and directed work that uses obviously fake stand-ins for Bush and actors to portray the President.  Instead, the film creates an enormous level of realism in the way it combines actual Bush footage with fabricated footage via computer visual effects.  Range is able to take real footage of the President and manipulate them into the events of his story and the end result is unrelentingly moving.  Incredibly, the film also creates an astounding level of suspense in the assassination.  DEATH OF A PRESIDENT develops a palpable sense of dread and anxiety in ways other fictional dramas and suspense films do, but in the stylistic trappings of a documentary.  At times,  Range’s film feels all too real.

His “documentary” is one that occurs, presumably, in 2008, after the October 2007 killing of Bush.  It showcases the events leading up to his death, the investigation afterwards, the capturing and trying of the supposed gunman, and all of the insights and reflections of those that were key players in the terrible events, all being handled by an unseen interviewer.  The documentary is broad, interviewing a Secret Service Agent (who feels partially responsible), a Chicago cop who was in charge of dealing with riotous mobs of protestors the day of the shooting, a Bush-loving campaign speechwriter, an FBI interrogator, and finally the wife of the man who is accused of the murder.  Again, most of the actors here lend to the film’s strong sense of verisimilitude.  They all reveal their thoughts and emotions in the film and do so very naturally and uncomfortably, most likely how people in a real documentary would act.  DEATH OF A PRESIDENT works mostly because of the emotions that the actors all bring to the table.

Each of the subjects have their own troubling memories of the night in question.  We are told in the film that a large number of radical protestors converged in Chicago on the night of the assassination.  All of them agree that they are all angrier and more vindictive than a typical “peaceful” protest group.  At one point Range shows how a few of them break through barricades and actually come within feet of the Presidential motorcade.  The footage here, as shot by Range, is shockingly realistic.  Yet, Bush makes it through and proceeds to go to the Sheraton Hotel to give a speech at a business conference (Range here uses actual footage of a Bush speech in Chicago).  Despite the dire warnings of the Secret Service, Bush bravely decides to go outside to greet some of the delegates and visitors.  Then, without warning, shots ring out and Bush’s is hit.

As Bush is rushed to Northwestern Hospital, authorities shut down the perimeter around the Sheraton and proceed to investigate.  It is here where the film generates the most interest, as it becomes an evocative who-dunnit.  Fake news broadcast try to garner a picture of what’s happening, all while the FBI swoops in and tries to piece things together to find the culprit.  Alongside this is an interview with one Secret Service man, who convincingly relays his sadness and regrets about not doing more to keep the President safe.   Then there is the police officer that tells of his frustration and worries over dealing with the protestors.  He rightfully reminds us of the First Amendment right to “peaceful” and “law-abiding” protest, but he also makes mention that he thought that the actions of the Chicago protestors were anything but civil.  As one FBI agent fittingly put it, when protest segues into a direct threat to the president, then it ceases to be peaceful.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of DEATH OF A PRESIDENT is not the killing of the head of state but the events that transpire afterwards.  Dick Cheney is quickly put into office in replacement of the slain Bush and - in a move that echoes the abuse of using the 9/11 to further political agenda - he uses Bush’s death to target terrorists.  Obviously, no one in a post-9/11 age would ever assume that an American would have killed the President.  A radical terrorist or Muslim extremist fits the bill better. 

Because of the dire times, Cheney assumes power and forces the implementation of THE PATRIOT ACT III, which gives the government unspecified powers to even further abuse the civil liberties of Americans.  Even more terrible is the way the FBI negotiators go out of there way to arrest, try, and convict a Syrian man to death row for the killing, even when most evidence points that he’s innocent.  Well, the man accidentally found himself in an Al-Qaeda training camp, but escaped and fled to America.  Unfortunately, the fact that he was there – even against his will – was enough to arrest and detain him.  As his defense lawyer summed up, it was next to impossible to give the man a fair trial in the US.  How can a juror be impartial when the media has already portrayed the man as a vile terrorist?

Perhaps even more sad is that – after they have tried and convicted the Syrian man – the FBI discovers evidence that the plot to kill the president has more home-grown elements.  Actually, the documentary begins to show that the Syrian man, in fact, did not kill the president, but the FBI did not seem interested in pursuing other leads and letting the innocent man go free.  After all, the case was closed in the literal court and in the court of public opinion, so who cares that the Syrian sits on death row?  After all, he sure appears like the man most Americans want to believe killed their Commander and Chief.  The convicted man’s wife appears many times on camera, teary-eyed and emotionally tortured.  Her family’s life is ruined and no one seems willing to come to the table to help them.

On larger levels, DEATH OF A PRESIDENT is spectacular and enlightening in the way it places the fictional death of Bush in large context.  What it does, in fact, say is that Bush’s demise at the hands of a sniper would not make the US a better place to reside in.  If anything, Dubya’s tragic death would only add more fuel to the fires of 9/11 paranoia and fear that sweeps through America.  The social and political ramifications are, in themselves, more deplorable than Bush’s death itself.  DEATH OF A PRESIDENT states that the President's death – no matter how terrible – would have even worse ramifications to the fragile American psyche.  Imagine a post-9/11 and post Bush assassination world were peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are considered criminals without any proof otherwise and where the government has even more powers granted to them in the current Patriot Act to worsen the already fragile civil liberties of Americans.  DEATH OF A PRESIDENT does not promote violence or killing; it wants the viewer to think about the moral questions it proposes and how we as people can deal with the ever-growing xenophobic policies of governments.

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT is not so much a morally objectionable and offensive stunt film as you have been lead to believe it is.  Yes, the film marries actual archival news and press frottage of the current US President with created footage of his terrible assassination, but the film is not heavy-handed, nor cruel, nor an unmitigated cheap shot at a much-hated man in political office.  Instead, Gabriel Range’s fictional documentary about Bush’s death and the consequences of it is ultimately a powerful work of make-believe and what if.  No reasonable thinking person will come out of the film thinking that it promotes acts of vengeful and sadistic violence.  What the film does do is ask the viewer to look at how the world could end up as a result of a current Presidential assassination and how our ideas of freedom and liberty could be compromised.  Ultimately, the film works stupendously as a crafty editorial piece that prompts viewers to think.  It’s ironic, but in our age of brutally sadistic horror films (like the SAW TRILOGY and HOSTEL), where wanton acts of torture and mayhem are considered entertainment for the masses, I find it more deplorable that some people take increased offence to a stirring and challenging film like DEATH OF A PRESIDENT.

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