The Reeler

Reviews

October 26, 2006

Death of a President

Ambitious imagining of Bush's assassination could use a little sense of humor

The conceits of American satire can be traced back to Mark Twain and ultimately Ben Franklin, and it goes without saying these days that Michael Moore, Al Franken and even South Park have done their civic duty. Such demagogic forces may divide the country, but so do the real issues; comedy culls from life, and it would be much less intriguing without the punch lines.

That said, Gabriel Range's Death of a President makes an ambitious attempt at imagining the current commander in chief's assassination in 2007, but it lacks an expected sense of humor. Granted, murder is no joke, but Range directs this combination of staged talking heads and doctored video with such skillful command of documentary form that it becomes easy to forget that what transpires is fiction. The first act places the fatal affair during the president's visit to Chicago for an economic convention. The killing, which follows a typically patriotic speech, stems from a sniper's rifle, drawing from the mystery surrounding JFK's death. Range stages the scene with nods to the 1981 Ronald Reagan shooting and the Zapruder film; in a world where the cameras are always watching, it couldn't possibly look any other way.

The movie nails a common characteristic of national grief, with President Bush receiving heaps of posthumous praise while most contempt for the government falls by the wayside. This group amnesia underscores the remaining running time as the official investigation places the blame on al-Qaida; the more credible possibility that the bullet may have originated on the homefront becomes irrelevant for the cutthroat government. That allegation comes across as the sort of cheesy conspiracy theorizing you might find in a low-budget cable doc, complete with a histrionic score and unquestioning pathos for the fallen leader. The real villain is the legislative system, determined to close the case in a way that conforms to the administration's outlook.

In between these developments, Death of a President adopts a funereal tone. Bush's former speechwriter comes across as an unblinking zombie of red state idolatry, recalling her final moments as though a witness to martyrdom. She's a cartoonish creation, but hardly more exaggerated than a lot of the regulars in contemporary politics. Range has a good understanding of what the fallout might look like, with a number of parallels to 9/11. The only laughable moment is Dick Cheney's sudden invisibility following the president's death, but only because of its familiarity.

The story is set in the near future, but it tackles several very real problems that contribute to the White House's current declining approval rate. That critical voice places its narrative in the same category as any number of left-leaning documentaries, alienating audiences that approve of Bush's policies. Without a doubt, the movie's mere existence is polarizing, but that's exactly what it has in mind; though we've got about a year to figure out the extent of its prophetic abilities (there are already some credible predictions about North Korean armaments), it sure seems to capture the zeitgeist today.

Despite the calculated jabs at contemporary politics, there remain obvious seams in this morbid fantasy. The media is portrayed as continually clueless, with a conspicuous absence of dogged investigative journalists willing to ask the hard questions -- nor are there any inquisitive bloggers, who would certainly rise to the occasion. When evidence comes up about the likely killer, his motivations are painfully obvious, which overwhelms the intended drama.

In promotional materials, the CG-enabled creation of the shooting provides the publicized centerpiece, lasting onscreen for a few terse frames. The fleeting moment signifies the extent of the overall emotional range; because the premise is already taboo, it could've benefited from a little farce. After all, as history has shown, mocking the national state of affairs takes just a smidgen of falsehood -- Range grasps that much. But the inspiration for his title character generates so much unintentional humor that it's a wonder why the director didn't aim to make a national lampoon.



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