As the official release date for Death of a President nears, I suspect there will be a lot more print devoted to the film than it actually deserves. In theory, I suppose, people will be strangely fascinated by a documentary-style film that examines the assassination of a sitting president. Reviews will be written, op-eds will be composed, and talking heads, no doubt, will pontificate loudly, though most won’t have a bloody goddamn idea what they’re getting so worked up about. Patrick Buchanan will appear on Bill O’Reilly’s show and they will decry the film as unpatriotic, a ghastly idea for a film drummed up by a few profiteers looking to exploit the current climate of anti-American sentiment (Hillary Clinton has already jumped on this bandwagon). O’Reilly will probably blame gays and Democrats, while calling for the imprisonment of the filmmakers for purported treason. Keith Olbermann, in turn, will offer up another “special comment” stating that it is our patriotic duty to make films about killing the president. I’m sure Ann Coulter will show up somewhere with her own theories, cribbed — in all likelihood — from an unknown third source. Chris Matthews will yell incoherently, Lou Dobbs will blame the immigrants, and Wolf Blitzer will blaze up another spliff and the soothing drone of his voice will put us all asleep. When we wake up, Jon Stewart will probably do a “heh-heh” impression of Bush getting shot and then call Robert Novak a douchebag for no other reason than because he is, and the next morning, Nina Totenberg will remove her top and give her own editorial of the film on NPR (Fact: Nina Totenberg does all of her radio correspondence topless.)
But, no one will actually see Death of a President. And it’s not because politicians have preemptively scared us away with their self-righteous, pandering bullshit about the shocking nature of the film. And it’s not because the large theater chains have refused to screen it in their multiplexes, though most of them have. It’s because — aside from a few radical liberals with wish-fulfillment issues — no one really wants to watch a movie where George Bush gets assassinated, especially this film. In fact, I can almost guarantee that most of those who criticize Death of a President won’t actually see it, because if they did, they’d probably fall asleep halfway through. The truth is, Death of a President — a movie NewMarket Films wasted $1 million to buy — is remarkably dull.
I’m not suggesting it’s a bad film, or that the premise is not marginally compelling. It’s just that the director, Gabriel Range, seems to be so hellbent on skirting controversy with his unavoidably controversial concept that the proceedings are inflicted with a serious case of cinematic mononucleosis — once the kiss of death arrives, the film suffers from narrative malaise and mental fatigue. It trudges along like a cheap, lifeless PBS documentary that couldn’t afford the narration talents of Ken Burns, opting instead to use witness confessionals that have all the zip and intrigue of an NFL quarterback’s platudinous post-game interview.
(Spoilers ahead, if you want to call them that.)
For the unfamiliar, Death of a President is a fictional documentary about assassination of George Bush, which takes place in Chicago on October 19, 2007 (mark you calendar, Daily Kosophiles). He is shot twice, once through the underarm and once in the chest. And it may be the least violent shooting you’ll ever see in a cinema.
In fact, to its detriment, the faux doc tries its absolute damndest to nail the authenticity of a real documentary, without offering the slightest trace of sensationalism, right down to dry stock footage and plenty of dispassionate testimonials from fake people you couldn’t possibly give two shits about. The film’s first act, which tracks the hours leading up to the assassination, starts in Chicago, where Bush is set to give a speech on economic policy to a group of businessmen at the Marriot Hotel. Outside, anti-war protestors — tired of the conflict in Iraq — have reached a fever pitch, and there are separate pockets of violent demonstrators within the more casual haters of Bush. The billy clubs are out in full force, and the scene is oddly reminiscent of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. During this portion of the doc, a few derelicts are discussed by the various law enforcement officials in the area on that day, basically to set up the third act, which is all about the investigation of the suspected trigger man.
It is in the second act — while we are left wondering whether Bush will live or die (he dies) — when Death of a President reveals the most chilling line in the entire movie, and the one snippet, delivered by a newscaster, that would probably turn even the most ardent Bush critic’s stomach: “Vice President Dick Cheney to become the 44th President of the United States.” If pundits and politicians really want to take issue with the content of Gabriel Range’s pseudo-documentary, then it is here where their ire should be directed. It is, indeed, a harrowing thought that a man who eats live kittens for dessert would become the leader of the free world.
Cheney, in turn, does what you’d expect (or what his pact with Satan dictates he do), and he blames the entire country of Syria, specifically President al-Assad, for the assassination. Patriot Act III is enacted, and law enforcement figures round up hundreds of detainees, for whom the feds have probable cause only on the basis of the new law. Amongst the many is a Syrian by the name of Jamal Zikri, who has a somewhat tenuous connection to Al-Qaeda. He is indicted and ultimately found guilty, based on very limited circumstantial evidence. Unsurprisingly, tensions with Syria and the rest of the world increase after this.
The truth, as it turns out, is far less conspiratorial. The (fake) documentary unearths plenty of (fake) evidence pointing toward another (fake) man, a (fake) Gulf War veteran who also lost his (fake) son in the current Iraq war, as the most likely (fake) culprit. The father blames Bush for the death of his son and, ultimately, takes his own life after committing the assassination. Clearly, if Cheney actually were president, a documentary that posited a theory contrary to the administration’s wouldn’t have aired and/or Range would’ve been strung up and eaten along with those kittens.
Still, the film’s central message is mostly lost on the viewer, who will likely fall asleep a few minutes after Bush is shot. But, it is this: Wouldn’t it be totally fucked up if all of our civil liberties were stripped away and we got involved in yet another unnecessary war all because of some dude’s personal vendetta? The answer, of course, is yes. And is the outcome hypothesized by Death of a President possible? Sure. In fact, it’s probable. But, for all its plausibility, the film still doesn’t make for an interesting viewing experience. Indeed, in a way I suppose, Death of the President is the ultimate pro-Bush agitprop, revealing a dystopian America run by someone legitimately more horrifying than a bumbling, narcissistic right-wing zealot: A calculated, narcissistic right-wing zealot. And no one wants a Dick running the country.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is currently halfway through a three-year ‘sentence’ in upstate, NY, where he lives with his wife. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
No One Wants a Dick Running the Country
Death of a President/ Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | October 24, 2006 | Comments ()