Inflammatory more on a conceptual level than for the ideas it actually advances, the skillful docudrama “Death of a President” uses an imagined assassination of George W. Bush a year hence to explore how the American government might react to such an event and to post warning signs about the dangers of a rush to judgment in a climate all too conducive to instant finger-pointing. Shrewdly blending archival footage with staged material in ways that raise a host of separate issues, pic is calculatingly controversial on the face of things, designed to provoke gobs of media coverage and automatic outrage from those who haven’t seen it. Such attention should assure theatrical release in key territories, although best prospects lie in cable (at least in the U.S.) and homevid.
From the very first moments, in which an Arabic-speaking woman bemoans the assassin’s act and asks, “Why didn’t he think about the consequences of his actions?,” it is firmly suggested that this is not a film that advocates the killing of Bush. Assembled soberly and credibly in the style of a TV history docu about the event made well after the fact, the picture spends its first half recounting the day–October 19, 2007–leading up to the president’s shooting in front of a Chicago hotel, and the second analyzing the search for suspects and the hasty push for justice.
English director and co-writer Gabriel Range knows his way around the docu style and the manipulation of footage for his own alarmist purposes, having three years ago made “The Day Britain Stopped,” another speculative piece about the collapse of the country’s transportation grid and its calamitous result. Range is on a path to becoming the intellectual Irwin Allen, a disaster specialist working in the brainy realm of faux analytical documentaries, a mini-genre arguably initiated by Peter Watkins more than four decades ago with “The War Game.”
Layering the sense of dread with measured expertise, Range does a formidable job visualizing the circumstances surrounding the crime. As insights are offered key personnel–secret service agents, police, the president’s speech writer, an activist and many others, all believably impersonated by actors–TV news-type coverage documents Bush’s arrival in Chicago, the arrival of his motorcade into the midst of a hugely unruly demonstration featuring 12,000 protestors and the president’s speech to a group of the city’s economic leaders (a real event here used fictionally).
The demonstration scenes, evidently staged on the streets of Chicago especially for the film, are amazingly realistic and rep the film’s high point in terms of vivid docudrama filmmaking. Many of the protestors have a feral, savage horde quality quite unlike their counterparts in the most famous film to have documented real-life Chicago political street battles, Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” and their burst beyond proscribed barriers and the resulting surge of police resemble frightening natural eruptions.
Despite the misgivings of the main secret service man, Bush insists upon walking the rope line on the way out of the hotel, which is where he’s hit by two bullets from an unseen source. The president is pushed into his limo and rushed to Northwestern Hospital as hysteria ensues. This key sequence, which comes 25 minutes in, could have been presented gruesomely and exploitatively but is not; Bush’s face, grafted in digitally, is fleetingly seen, but there’s no impact or slow motion and it all happens in a flurry.
Then there’s the waiting period, during which time authorities hurriedly assess where the shots may have come from and search for suspects. It’s quickly determined that the shooter was positioned on the twentieth floor of the building across the street. A rifle is found, video surveillance footage is examined and numerous men are rounded up.
Soon after the president expires from his wounds, at pic’s midway point, a certain Jamal Abu Zikri is arrested, his name leaked to the media with suspicious speed. Employed in the building across the street, Zikri is Syrian and, although he initially denies it, formerly served in that country’s army. Once it’s learned he also associated with a rabble-rousing Muslim cleric in the Chicago projects and traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, everyone’s satisfied that Zikri’s the man they want.
Pressure is ratcheted up on Syria, and President Cheney quickly pushes through Patriot Act III, which gives the government further powers to fight terrorism domestically. Perhaps the film’s most remarkable–or dubious, depending upon one’s perspective–sequence in one in which Cheney is seen to be presiding over his predecessor’s state funeral, extolling his greatness to the distinguished assembly. One actually sees Cheney himself standing before a flag-bedraped casket at just such a funereal, and one can only presume that what we hear are ingeniously edited excerpts from a speech he gave in honor of a recently deceased government luminary.
After the elaborate set-up, the film curiously narrows in the last stretch devoted to Kikri’s trial and related events. Far too much time is given over to forensic evidence, and when a possible alternative shooter comes into view, the concerns of the film are reduced nearly to those of a standard-issue murder mystery.
The film implicitly links the “conveyor belt” process by which Kikri has been charged, tried and convicted to the assumptions portrayed as truth by the Bush Administration and many others that led to the Iraq invasion, the almost automatic linking of Al-Qaeda to every terrorist incident and so on. It’s this change of mindset, the instant associations that now connect to anything Islamic or that might be perceived as threatening the United States, that are the film’s chief subjects. It’s a point of view very much at odds with the administration line, but the argument is presented in a non-hysterical way that invites debate.
Disappointingly, “Death of a President” shrinks from its promise as a piece of genuinely radical or adventurous speculative fiction. For a while, the film references world events that parallel the domestic tragedy, such as flare-ups concerning North Korea and the challenge to Syria. Final section jumps seven months ahead, or to May, 2008, offering the possibility of mentioning such pertinent matters as a Cheney run for reelection, a widening of the Middle East conflict and further U.S. muscle flexing. But there’s nothing of the sort. By concentrating solely on the details of the crime, the filmmakers deny themselves the greatest visionary possibilities offered by their premise.
The film also raises provocative questions as to the ethics of doctoring real footage to fictional or ideological ends, as well as to the responsibility of even presenting such heinous potential crimes in the context of would-be popular entertainment and thus possibly putting ideas into the heads of the easily suggestible. All this provides plenty of fodder for pontification by cultural commentators.
Technically, the film is exceptional.