Death of a President (2006) — Pointless historical revisionism

“I called up and said ‘How’s my boss doing?’ And the nurse started crying and I think that was when I knew.”

Al’s rating: Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the high-powered sniper rifle.

Al’s review: It’s an understatement to say George W. Bush is a divisive figure. He is pretty explicitly loved or hated, and, as of the time of this writing, the number of people with a middle-of-the-road opinion seems to drop daily. So when Gabriel Range and Simon Finch decided to kill him off, it made national news.

Their faux-documentary, Death of a President, chronicles the fictional assassination of George Bush and the ensuing manhunt for his killer. When it was released in the weeks leading up to the 2006 elections, the hype machine for Death of a President was running on levels usually reserved for snakes on planes. Predictably, it was both condemned and celebrated, depending on the circles in which you ran. All the major theater chains refused to show it on their screens. This film made the evening newscast on nearly every program from The O’Reilly Factor to The Al Franken Show. There were film clips, interviews, and sound bites from celebrity talking heads. People couldn’t stop discussing it.

Then poof. Just like that, it was gone. Disappeared. The Keyser Soze of political docudrama. Not having my ear to the door of all those people’s bedrooms, I can’t say for certain why it was suddenly blown over and cast aside. Maybe it was simply a flash in the pan and it had burned itself out. My guess, though, is that all those pundits and analysts and self-righteous mavens who cawed so loudly finally sat down and watched Death of a President and had to face the fact that it just isn’t that good of a movie.

Given all the conflict surrounding the release of this film and knowing the biases that would be inherent in any of the reviews I could read, I did not know exactly what to expect when I picked it off the shelf of the video store. To my surprise and delight, however, the first half-hour went a long way to prove that Death of a President was crafted by people with half a brain and no heavy-handed agenda (other than the rather audacious premise itself, of course).

It frames the event like a CourtTV or History Channel documentary, impartially recounting the day of October 19th, 2007 and the events of the shooting. Interviews are conducted with the people who were there: the head of the Secret Service, the speech writer who rode in the limo, the Chicago police chief in charge of the scene, etc. The filmmakers do an impressive job of realistically portraying people who really did like their boss and are still traumatized by what they witnessed. At first they speak mostly about the speech on the economy he delivered and what a good mood he was in, but a pall slowly gathers over the interviews, as, more and more, the topic turns towards the violent protest raging outside and all the suspicious and potentially dangerous people hauled off as the day went on. The tension builds up expertly, which is especially impressive considering everyone watching the movie knows exactly where this is all going.

Finally, surprisingly quickly, it happens — shots fired, yelling and screaming, the president is down. He is rushed to a hospital but, after several hours of surgery, is pronounced dead. With all their worst fears realized, authorities scramble to the hunt for the killer. Suspects and witnesses are rounded up and the investigation takes off, not really knowing where to go but running at full speed anyway. This sort of chaos and helplessness mixed with determination is well illustrated by the movie and is exciting to watch unfold, but it is also marks the turning point, when Death of a President starts to go bad. Authorities detain one man and begin to outline all the reasons for his capture. Then, contradictory evidence appears and it becomes clear he’s not the droid they’re looking for. They detain another and the process repeats. Then another. And another.

After a few rounds of this, it becomes fairly clear that the filmmakers aren’t much interested in moving beyond “who shot the President” and why. During the various narrations, mentions are made of Dick Cheney swearing in as the 44th president, new laws being passed, and trouble getting cooperation from foreign governments during the investigation, but none of it is given more than a passing reference. For example, they dwell momentarily on amendments made to the Patriot Act, dubbed Patriot III, that “[granted] investigators unprecedented powers of detention and surveillance, and further expanded the powers of the executive branch.” Sounds interesting, but that’s pretty much all they have to say about it. How does Cheney deal with Syria, knowing that they are withholding information about the likely murderer of his friend and the leader of the free world? What about Iraq? The war presumably didn’t just stop.

That’s the kind of stuff I really came into this movie wanting to see — what did the death of George W. Bush do to the world at large? — and we get answers to none of it. Instead we are treated to increasingly protracted commentaries on the legal woes and murder trial of the suspected assassin that are robbed of all emotion and drama by the very documentary style that was intended to give this story an impact.

By the time Death of a President was over, I really couldn’t tell exactly what the filmmakers were trying to say with it all. I suppose it could be a commentary on the justice system or how fast people can jump to conclusions (in which case I have to call it a failure, despite all the time they devote to the forensics and criminal hearings) or a look into a shocking alternate reality where the course of the world has changed irrevocably (in which case it’s just an unsatisfying misfire). The only intention I can really give them full marks for is if the directors simply wanted to kill the president onscreen. They certainly accomplished that — just not a whole lot more.

Didja notice?

  • The president’s nickname on the secret service itinerary, “Trailblazer”
  • The Godzilla-worthy dubbing during Dick Cheney’s eulogy
  • Bush’s speech writer is Becky Ann Baker, the mom on Freaks and Geeks.

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