Death of a President (2006)
It’s been called morally reprehensible and obscene. Theater chains have refused to even touch it. The White House is concerned it will spawn a deadly array of copycats. The controversial movie in question is a little independently produced mock documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush in the year 2007. It’s kind of funny that this small talking-heads piece has so many people talking, because without its central gimmick, no one would be utterly a word about Death of a President. No readers, they would all be fast asleep.
We’re introduced to various people involved in the fateful event. In October 2007, Bush is appearing in Chicago and the city is overrun with protestors armed with angry signs and angrier words. A handful of protestors even break police lines and come within a hair of the president’s motorcade (to his credit, Bush doesn’t take it personally). Then as he’s leaving a speech, shaking hands along a roped line, shots are heard and the president goes down. In the aftermath many are suspected, including disenfranchised Iraq war vets, protestors, and a Muslim man who may have a connection to al-Quaida.
Death of a President has the potential to be little more than extreme left-wing wish fulfillment. No matter your thoughts on Bush as a president and a person, I hope the majority of people would not wish death upon him. I think the appeal of this mock-doc is the ghoulish rubbernecking of watching the president die right before your eyes. The moment is quick and mostly just Bush bending over in pain. The lead-up to the kill manages to quicken the pulse. Is it offensive to flirt with the idea of killing our elected leaders while they are still in office? Is it more repugnant when filmmakers use advanced computer effects and archival footage to make the moment as real as possible? It seems that the movie is coming at the peak of an unpopular president and an unpopular war, so some moviegoers will buy their tickets just to vicariously watch Bush die. Those same folks will be surprised how sympathetic and likeable Bush comes across in passing.
Questionable ethics aside, the movie is a whodunit built around a fortuitous gimmick, but once the title death takes place the movie utterly collapses. The ensuing hour turns into an investigation into who had their finger on the trigger. Death of a President has a baffling lack of political insight. The government centers their investigation on a Middle Eastern man of Syrian descent, fudges evidence out of pressure, and tries to build support for a unilateral military response, civil liberties get trampled upon in the name of security, and yet it’s all so sadly predictable. Death of a President is merely repeating the news of our tumultuous times, and it feels so stiltedly scripted. You can?t help but think that the current political scandals are far more weird and fascinating than this ho-hum what-if political science scenario. It’s just recycling current events and changing corresponding details. There?s nothing new or interesting here. As soon as Bush gets shot down so too does the film?s chances of exploring anything meaningful.
The second half of this film is downright narcoleptic. The investigation is deep in procedural gobbledy gook and the film feels impersonal. I mean, a sitting president has been assassinated in the age of cable TV, global economy, and the war on terror, and all the film can muster is trying to piece together the minutia of how to prosecute a case? I’m sorry, presidential assassination ranks a bit above your standard Law & Order output. There are so many interesting doomsday outcomes that could come about (especially with the scary thought of a President Cheney) and yet the film finds the most boring, insignificant, tedious path. This is inexcusable. It all feels so pathetically small for an act that would be immeasurably monumental. The film is shocking in how little it has to say about anything. It is devoid of commentary and complexity.
Director/co-writer Gabriel Range stages the entire film exactly like a prime time TV news report. It’s slick and packaged well, and the cut-and-paste magic creates an eerie realism. Range uses a mix of archival footage and CGI to illustrate Bush’s assassination. Cheney’s eulogy is actually extensively culled from the speech he gave at Ronald Reagan’s funeral. Don’t know if that?s respectful or not. The technical credentials are worthwhile; the heavy-handed message is not. This is not satire. This is shallow and secondary and pointless. I think Range has treated Death of a President more like an audition film, hoping for bigger and better things. At least, I hope whatever comes next for this man is better.
Death of a President isn’t a terrible movie but it’s way too simplistic, ham-fisted, myopic, and freakin’ dull. The controversy attached to this tiny movie may mislead you into thinking it’s something worth seeing. It’s not. The visual trickery and talking-head structure makes it seem like something you’d see on TV, and you should take that to heart. Wait for TV with this one. Its direct-to-TV ticket is booked as soon as audiences find out what the movie really is. That is, if you can manage to rouse them awake.
Nate’s Grade: C-