If you haven’t heard buzz about this movie, you’ve probably been too wrapped up in Borat hype or have taken a vow to never remove the soundproof headphones wrapped around your ears. If the second part to that introduction seemed weak, it was a replacement for “you’ve been in Canada” since that one’s unusable due to Death of a President being made in (where else?) The Great Land to the North.
For the one person that hasn’t heard of this movie, it is the fictional documentary of the years following President George W. Bush’s fictional, unsolved assassination. The first section of the movie is a look at the USA of 2007, following Bush’s crew around to an event in Chicago where he is taken down (fictionally) by a sniper’s bullet. The second section follows the manhunt to find the assassin – it is a standard mystery featuring interviews and tracking the clues. Most of the circumstantial evidence points to a Syrian-born man who is summarily charged, convicted, and tossed onto death row. However, like any good murder mystery, the audience is never really sure who the real killer is, and there are plenty of decent suspects.
When all is said and done, this film belongs more on the sidewalks of Venice Beach passing a hat for loose change than it does in a museum for all to admire. The first half hour is a startling look at life, colored by two particular moments that make the skin crawl – the assassination, which was put together by old footage of Bush and inventive CGI methods, and the eulogy given by Vice President Dick Cheney at the funeral. This harsh fictional-ism creates stone silence in an audience. Even the liberal, button-wearing lady in my row kept her comments to herself once the assassination actually took place.
The second half is a different story. The direction this movie takes is a tale of what a director is forced to do when his groundbreaking concept would make a great short, but he has to fill a feature-length time slot. Bottom line, Death of a President runs out of steam once the shock factor wears off. The aftermath of the assassination and the ensuing investigation are so predictable that it makes the filmmakers look as inept as they paint the secret service and FBI to be.
The effects are done well – only a few awkward computerized moments – and the acting is solid, serving as a necessary component for a film which hinges on its ability to sell something that people not only know hasn’t happened but hope doesn’t. Suspending disbelief is the highest hurdle, and Death of a President leaps it with ease. Unfortunately, it stumbles hard on the second hurdle of maintaining interest past the incendiary moments.
Oddly enough, one of the things that sinks this film is the surrounding hype. Most people that I talked to afterward agreed that they would have enjoyed it more if they hadn’t heard so much about it. That seems lucky for the one person who hasn’t heard of it, but for everyone else it would be wise to hold off on seeing it until it comes out on DVD. Better yet, wait until the first half hour shows up on YouTube and skip the second half altogether. Overall, the movie fails despite having a riveting first section – the second and third acts just can’t live up to expectations.
Release Date: October 27, 2006 (limited)
The Upside: Jaw-dropping subject matter and brilliant acting from unknown faces.
The Downside: A lackluster storyline beyond the hype.
On the Side: Death of a President includes some uncanny predictions about the future that we now know to be true, like North Korea’s declaration of nuclear testing, a declaration that was made after the film was finished.
Final Grade: C+
Cole Abaius is a critic for Film School Rejects.