Death of a President
2006Director: Gabriel Range
Cast: Becky Ann Baker, Brian Boland, Michael Reilly Burke
eorge W. Bush: July 6, 1946–October 19, 2007
Never has a tagline seemed so threatening: an unknowing theatergoer might spot Death of a President’s arresting poster in the foyer and consider it a piece of grim clairvoyance, a provocative warning to Mr. Bush. Gabriel Range’s film, a faux-shockumentary investigating the mystery behind the assassination of Dubya after a speech in Chicago (created through carefully edited footage and digital manipulation), is something of a cautionary tale, but it delivers its message so limply you honestly wonder—is this really is the thing that everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Hilary Clinton is making such a fuss over?
Like Range’s previous film, The Day Britain Stopped, a similarly doom-laden prediction of the UK descending into chaos, Death of a President is surprisingly low-key considering its subject matter and instant notoriety. The viewer is lead through the build-up to the whacking by Bush’s aides (including the talented and believable Becky Ann Baker as his speechwriter) and secret service detail, giving us a typical line on the President as a person: high-spirited and wise-cracking, a guy who can warm up the dullest economics conference with a few homey Texan witticisms. Not quite the stitch-up job some might have expected from a film that executes the man on screen. Fear not, vitriolic liberals (honestly, who else is going to pay to see this film?), Range is quick to remind us of Bush’s unpopularity as his speech is subsumed with protestors, crowds of sign-waving disgruntled students possibly masking evil, pistol-wielding terrorists. The tension that builds is undeniable despite constant interludes by staid talking heads and the obvious outcome (hint: it’s in the title).
The event itself is carried off realistically: shades of Kennedy and Oswald (and any other assassination you might have seen on TV) abound in a chaotic mess of people, screaming, and gunshots. The technical achievement of Range’s team is easy to appreciate, despite some fairly amateurish hiccups (supposed archives of broadcast news on the day look more like a high school AV club). The narrative construction is tight, too, even after Bush is felled and the film focuses on the hunt for his assassin. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that Death of a President begins to lose its grip on fake reality and drifts into stale morality. One of the suspects is—surprise, surprise!—an Arab (Syrian, to be exact) man named Jamal Abu Zikri who has some unsubstantial ties to terrorist camps in Pakistan. His wife (Hend Ayoub) tells us, in subtitled Arabic, that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Dick Cheney disagrees and Jamal quickly finds himself on death row. Case closed, right?
Surely not. Range uses the second half of the film to make his big point: hey, maybe it isn’t always the Muslim! After all, another talking head (M. Neko Parkham) pops up once in a while to tell us about his brother, who died fighting in Iraq, and his father, who never quite got over that and was found dead by suicide the day of the assassination. Compared to the gloriously loopy conspiracy theories of Oliver Stone’s JFK or the taut horror of Peter Watkins’ The War Game, it all seems rather lame, more worthy of an episode of Criminal Minds than a film dissecting the death of the most polarizing figure of the 21st century.
Instead of trying to realistically examine the effect such a shattering event would have on the American psyche, Range’s film squanders its shocking conceit with a flaccid conclusion that reminds us that it ain’t just the terrorists who aren’t happy with Bush. Technically, it’s all very well and good, but it’s also embarrassingly middle-of-the-road and will leave the President’s rabid fans and detractors equally dissatisfied. In search of something more politically astute? You’d be better off renting That’s My Bush!.
Death of a President is currently playing in limited release.
By: David Sims
Published on: 2006-11-07