DEATH OF A PRESIDENT directed by Gabriel Range, written by Range and Simon Finch, with Hend Ayoub, Becky Ann Baker, Brian Boland, Michael Reilly Burke, Patricia Buckley, Seena Jon, Robert Mangiardi, Jay Patterson, Christian Stolte, James Urbaniak and Jay Whittaker. 93 minutes. A Maple Pictures release. Opens Friday (October 27). For venues and times, see Movies, page 115. Rating: NN Rating: NN
After the rabid media frothing that met Death Of A President's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it's tempting to imagine all sorts of other combustible what-ifs. What if the coincidence of a rogue Iranian missile and American oil politics sparked a global crisis? Oh, wait, that was Syriana. Or what if Americans declared war on Canada? Right - the South Park movie.
Regal Entertainment, the largest cinema chain in the U.S., has banned Death Of A President from its theatres. So has the Cinemark chain, based in Texas. Just goes to show that one viewer's speculative fiction is another's unspeakable offense.
Working from sometime in 2008, director Gabriel Range imagines what would happen if President George W. Bush had been assassinated in Chicago on October 19, 2007. Styled as an investigative documentary and style is this film's most provocative act DOAP uses a seamless mix of actual news footage, dramatized scenes and digital crochet work to fabricate a forensic probe into the murder.
It shouldn't even be worth saying, but DOAP shows absolutely no interest in rejoicing at the prospect of offing Bush. Nor does it have anything to say about the geopolitical fallout of a Bush murder. Politically, it's as dry as an autopsy report. There's only a quiet indictment of any legal system that succumbs to a politically motivated rush to judgment. But that message crops up in every other John Grisham thriller, so why are so many so afraid of DOAP?
It has to be style. By exploiting the aura of authenticity that news and surveillance camera footage has in our imaginations, Range pushes the illusion of actuality at us. The assassination scene outside Chicago's Sheraton Hotel looks like a tableau of chaos familiar from Robert Kennedy assassination photos or Lee Harvey Oswald's murder.
But the real high point is Dick Cheney's eulogy at Bush's funeral. Here Range uses an actual Cheney speech apparently at Ronald Reagan's funeral altered slightly to reference Bush.
Range has worked this turf before in The Day Britain Stopped, which imagined the UK grinding to a halt when the transportation grid collapses. But the most celebrated precedent is Peter Watkins's 1965 docudrama The War Game, which asked what would happen if Britain experienced a nuclear attack. In that case, the BBC, which commissioned the film, banned it from broadcast, but in the U.S. it received an Academy Award, which just goes to show.
Because it sticks so closely to the crime investigation, DOAP is not paranoid enough to be really interesting unless you consider that it was bought for U.S. distribution by Newmarket Films. Apart from hot-button movies like The Woodsman and Monster, Newmarket also made a fortune distributing The Passion Of The Christ, which imagined what if the Jews killed Jesus.