TORONTO — “Death of a President” seemed to cause more of a stir before its world premiere on Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival than afterwards.
Styled as a “retrospective documentary,” in the words of helmer Gabriel Range, the fictional pic resembled more than anything the multitude of Sept. 11 docs crowding cable channels in recent weeks, except in this case the national tragedy is the assassination of President George W. Bush on October 19, 2007.
While the graphic image released to promote the film, a photo doctored to look like the scene of Bush’s death whipped up worldwide controversy, the portrayal of the shooting lasts only a few frames of video footage. Bush is seen from behind doubling over after a few gun shots that sound in the film like muted pops.
Though a dozen TV news crews showed up outside the theater, including a Fox News satellite truck that had been parked there since the morning, and more than a hundred people were turned away, the doc was greeted with only tepid applause by the aud and many left before Range and his co-scribe Simon Finch came to the front began a Q&A session.
The resemblance of the pic to Sept. 11 docs — talking head interviews overlayed with archival news footage, some doctored in this case — is perhaps not unintentional, as Grange said afterward, he was originally inspired to by his experiences living in New York shortly after the World Trade Center attacks.
“I was struck by the very profound ways the country seemed to be changing.”
Pic begins on the day that Bush is assassinated, follows through the forensic investigation of the crime scene, several suspects who turn out to be innocent, the ascension of President Dick Cheney and the ultimate discovery of the true assassin: an African American veteran of the first Gulf War who is distraught when his son is killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
Driving home the pic’s connection to Sept. 11 is its opening words, spoken in Arabic by a woman who turns out to be the wife of the Syrian man who is wrongly convicted for the murder: “When I saw what the terrorists did on 9/11, I cried.” She later explains that she feared the repercussions for Muslims living in the U.S.
Story picks up with Bush arriving in Chicago to give a speech to business leaders on economic growth. A White House speechwriter says that despite the impact of high oil prices and the continuing war in Iraq, “As always he was confident our policies were correct — it was just a matter of time.”
Outside the Sheraton where Bush gives his speech, 12,000 angry protesters have gathered and law enforcement is concerned for his safety.
One of the initial dead-end suspects is a protest leader who later declares of Bush in the pic, “If you believe in the death penalty, he was a candidate. He had caused over 100,000 deaths and had he been tried in a war crime tribunal, he would have been a candidate.”
From his perspective, White House policy only gets worse when the 44th President of the United States Dick Cheney is sworn in and briefly tries to get Congress to invade Syria after a Syrian IT worker emerges as the leading suspect. Instead, Cheney settles for a further expanded Patriot Act, which is used to convict and send to death row the Syrian man seven months after the assassination.
Meanwhile, an Iraqi vet from a military family comes forward to try to convince the world that his father, who committed suicide after Bush’s death following the death of his other son in Iraq. The note he leaves behind reads, “Everything I’ve raised you to stand for has turned bad. There’s no honor in standing for an immoral country. George Bush killed our David and I can’t forgive him.”
The report is dismissed and the Syrian immigrant is convicted. But even after documents in the vet’s belongings prove he was the true assassin, the Syrian remains in prison on trumped charges of ties to Al Qaeda.
Talking about how the pain caused by the assassination, the wife says late in the doc, “When that gun was in your hand, how couldn’t you think about the consequences of your actions?”
After the screening, Range said he did not intend the doc as a call to murder President Bush. “I hope we portray the horror of assassination,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would get the idea of assassinating Bush from this film.”
Pre-screening hype had made the preem the hottest ticket in Toronto.
Outside the theater, the first person in the “rush line,” University Toronto student Christopher Stumm, said he had been waiting seven hours for a chance to get in. “The subject is interesting and more controversial, and the film is not coming out in cinemas.” His friend waiting with him, Jon Barron, also a college student, said he didn’t personally want Bush dead, but added, “I’m sure tons of people want to see this happen.”