Director Gabriel Range creates a fictional documentary about the assassination of President George W. Bush and its aftermath to examine the United States’ reaction to 9/11. While many will be turned off solely by the notion that the film shows the assassination of a sitting President, it is the magnitude and horror of just such an event that unfortunately makes it the perfect metaphor. The death of a fictional President would not have had the same impact.
In 2007, President Bush is making a speech in Chicago while a great many angry protestors march in the streets. On his way back to the motorcade, he is shot. The Secret Service rushes Bush to the hospital, but doctors can’t save him. Dick Cheney is sworn in as the 44th President.
Hundreds of people who were in the area are rounded up and questioned. When word gets out that the main suspect is Jamal Zikri, a Muslim from Syria, the idea that this was a state-sponsored attack surfaces, a believable theory due to their involvement in the assassination of the Prime Minister of Lebanon. Cheney wants to attack Syria and gets Congress to sign off on Patriot Act III, another expansion of executive branch powers that would give investigators more authority regarding detention and surveillance. As Zikri’s trial moves forward, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that implicates him, but nothing conclusive. With so much riding on his conviction, can justice fairly be served?
Death of A President is put together extremely well, but the film’s message will be overshadowed by its medium. The subject matter is so volatile and offensive that many won’t give it a chance. The film is not anti-Bush and the assassination is not glorified or condoned. In fact, the message is the complete opposite. The assassination is a very bad thing. The film speaks out against using violence and fear as tactics by showing the potential dangers involved. The story has a surprising yet believable resolution.
The documentary examines what happened by interviewing participants who were with Bush on the day of his assassination, an advisor, a Secret Service agent, a Chicago Police Deputy, and a newspaper correspondent, as well as those involved with the investigation, a forensic expert and an interrogator from the FBI, and suspects.
The visuals are so good that they are unnerving. They use footage of Bush, Cheney, and others and easily manipulate them to create the story. Actors are seamlessly placed within photos and videos. They also get in the middle of a real anti-Bush protest and shoot scenes among real events, recalling Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.
The film made a couple of missteps. Cheney is too easily made to look like a villain because his positions aren’t explained. His desire to go into Syria is revealed in one line stating that he’s always wanted to go in and get rid of Assad, but there’s no more depth provided. Also, there is no mention of his stance regarding Patriot Act III. Even if you disagree with Cheney’s reasons for going into Iraq and the increase of executive power, he does have an understandable basis for them. They weren’t arrived at arbitrarily. Also, I recognized a couple of actors, which took me out of the moment.
Death of A President will be hard to find as some theater chains have opted not to show it. Regal Theaters spokesman Dick Westerling said, “We do not feel it is appropriate to portray the future assassination of a president.” While it is their business and they are certainly entitled to run it anyway they want, I do find the statement interesting. A film that contains the death of one man to make a point about violence and fear is inappropriate while the killing of scores of people on multiplex screens every day solely for entertainment is acceptable. Personally, I would prefer that audiences think about violence and its ramifications rather than be rendered numb to it.