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Movie Review: Death of a President – Where’s the Beef?

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In 2005 the guerrilla theater troupe Imagination Liberation Front staged a play entitled I'm Going to Kill the President in Los Angeles. The piece was high-concept – to get to the show, you had to call a hot line, which provided a secret meeting place. Upon arriving at that location, you were asked, on videotape, if you were part of any law enforcement organization and then escorted to a performance space and given a program in which all of the actors’ and writers’ names had been redacted “for security reasons." I never saw the play but according to sources, it was a fun but poorly executed evening of agitprop that ended with the audience yelling out the phrase that is an actual federal offense — "I'm going to kill the President." The gimmick was all that was there and that was apparently enough.

ILF presented a sloppy sandwich with plenty of meat, so we forgive them for the plating. Lionsgate's Death of a President, written by Simon Finch and Gabriel Range, is not a poorly executed faux documentary but it is likewise not fun, nor does it live up to the promise of its gimmick.

Supposing that in October 2007, President George Walker Bush was assassinated following a speech in Chicago and using a lot of actual newsreel footage, the premise has a lot going for it. The first third of the film details the actual day of the assasssination from the points of view of Bush's speech writer, his head of security, the head of Chicago's F.B.I. branch, and a Chicago cop. The entire second third is devoted to the framing of a Muslim man living in Chicago and the discovery that, after he is convicted, the real assassin was a veteran of the War in Iraq, angry over the death of his son.

The Bush protesters are shown to be essentially toothless, angry, and without much going for them while the portrayal of Bush is reverent; comments made in cutaway confessionals indicate the violent anarchy of constitutionally protected protests and the even-handed, above-the-fray dignity of Bush. This very perspective had my liberal, Democrat/Libertarian blood boiling, but at least I cared. Once Bush is killed, the whole thing becomes a vanilla whodunit with very little stake one way or the other.

I love documentaries and a good fake documentary is one of my favorite genres. A fake documentary gives the creators a license to be openly critical of things that could not (or would not) ever make it to film (like both This is Spinal Tap and Bob Roberts). It allows for a creation of an alternate universe that shows us the results of the 'slippery slope' so often invoked as a reason to not do certain things in our society and has the potential to function as high satire. Unfortunately for Death of a President, Finch and Range made a very authentic looking documentary that takes advantage of none of the genre's potential.

Gabriel Range directs this film as if it really happened, and in doing so, bleeds the concept dry of anything interesting whatsoever. Additionally, he avoids the most interesting aspect of the scenario — what happens if Dick Cheney becomes the Commander-in-Chief? With so much of the real world resembling a novel by George Orwell or Joseph Heller, one would think that it would be pretty easy to imply more of the same and show the power-hungry, neocon agenda gone wild. The opportunity is wasted.

The film looks and feels authentic — the editing of pre-existing footage and footage shot with actors is nearly seamless (although some of the CGI insertions are both unnecessary and obvious). There is no question that the filmmakers have skills. Unfortunately, Death of a President accomplishes the worst thing any piece of art can achieve — it bores. This was one dull two-hour experience. I watched it on my computer and found myself cleaning my office when things got tedious. Needless to say, my office looks great now.

When creating a sandwich that has the promise of controversy, the controversy is the meat of the meal. Finch and Range present us a beautiful looking plate, with great bread and condiments; unfortunately there ain't no meat to this sandwich.

Not recommended; see Bob Roberts, or Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb instead.

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  • Steve C.

    Gabriel Range directs this film as if it really happened, and in doing so, bleeds the concept dry of anything interesting whatsoever.

    This isn’t necessarily a bad way to go about things — Peter Watkins’s The War Game, for instance, is terrifying in part because Watkins films it as though it’s all actually happening right this moment. The point is to know where to go and what to do with the you-are-there dynamic. From the sound of it, Mr. Range never got that far in the planning.

  • Jerry

    The devil’s in the details. With all the CGI work and clever editing you’d think the director would have gotten a simple detail like time display correct. All the time stamps in the film (e.g., news, government documents, security cameras) all show the British period (or as they say “full stop”) as the seperator between hours and minutes vs. the American colon (3.15 pm vs. 3:15 pm). I guess the post-production was done in the UK? I agree with Mr. Hall — it was a little dull to watch, which had me looking for a real clock.