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Death of a President   C+

Newmarket Films / FilmFour

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Gabriel Range
Writers: Gabriel Range, Simon Finch
Cast: Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Becky Ann Baker, Robert Mangiardi, Jay Patterson, Jay Whittaker, Michael Reilly Burke.

Review by Rob Vaux
"This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the Earth. Perhaps we should shoot him."
--Lt. Walters (Clarence Felder), Ruthless People

A good way to spot a blowhard is to hear them expound on books they haven't read or films they haven't seen. The shrieks of outrage Death of a President has generated -- from Rush Limbaugh to Hillary Clinton and every political point in between -- play directly into its calculated gimmick. If any of them had bothered to watch the film before spouting off, they'd know just what a paper tiger it is. Not that it's bad per se, simply that its supposed political overtones serve a far less divisive purpose. It posits the fictitious assassination of President Bush in October of 2007 and the fallout that follows. Yet its commentary on Bush and the legacy of his administration is toned down to match the confines of a very conventional murder mystery.

Bush fits director Gabriel Range's purposes because he's such a polarizing figure, inspiring deeply felt passions on both sides of the divide. (In that sense, Bill Clinton could have served equally well had he been in office at the time the movie was made.) Questions of the President's policies -- in Iraq, on the home front, towards any subject you might conjure up -- act merely as motives in a possible whodunit. Range studiously avoids engaging such issues, instead contenting himself with a passive lesson on how the media distorts everything it touches and why political assassination is always a bad thing. (For fellow lefties who may feel differently, the film invites a long slow contemplation of the phrase "President Cheney.") The remainder acts solely to differentiate the possible killers. Was it the loony environmental extremist? The Middle Eastern immigrant with possible ties to al-Qaida? The disgruntled ex-sniper home from a tour in Iraq? Death of a President has little interest in the larger quandaries such figures represent. Their positions serve only to define them as characters.

On the positive side, Range does an excellent job of invoking the plausibility of his scenario. With a cunning mixture of existing stock footage, CGI assists, and "interviewed" actors portraying key figures on the scene, he creates a "future documentary" that stands up well to casual scrutiny. The assassination takes place in Chicago, where the president has arrived for a speech to local business leaders. Outside the hotel, tens of thousands of angry protesters have gathered to condemn his administration. The footage eerily evokes the specter of 1968, as policemen and Secret Service agents speak of the crowd's unusual hostility, and of a few disquieting protesters with a lot more on their mind than making noise.

As effective as Range's presentation is, however, it becomes clear early on that he's using it for simple storytelling ends. Suspense is ratcheted up as we wait for the inevitable bullet -- complete with red herrings, false alarms, and ominous music rumbling on the soundtrack. Once the deed is done and Bush is carted off to a nearby hospital (where he succumbs to his injuries several hours later), the film shifts focus towards the search for the killer. Again, Death of a President is effective in portraying the panic and confusion that would feasibly follow such a blow. The FBI rounds up several hundred suspects -- anyone suspicious in the vicinity of the hotel -- and while a massive search uncovers the gun, the question of who fired it grows increasingly muddled. Meanwhile, now-President Cheney proposes a more expanded version of the Patriot Act, which a grieving Congress approves unconditionally. As the hunt for the assassin continues, now pointing ominously towards a terrorist connection, the expanding ripples can be felt throughout the civilized world.

All well and good, but Death of a President has no interest in exploring the long-term ramifications of such an act -- how it might parallel 9/11 or what kind of changes it would cause in both America and the larger geopolitical situation. Instead, it stays sharply centered on the identity of the murderer. When someone is caught, we're shown the trial and the aftermath, along with the inevitable media circus and the troubling question of whether they have the right man. Though modestly effective as drama, it diminishes the horrifying implications of the central act, reducing it to a flashy hook in a run-of-the-mill political thriller. Had it been a totally fictitious president, the result would elicit a shrug and perhaps mild interest in the quasi-documentary format. But by placing a controversial leader like Bush in the mix, Death of a President ensures that the world's assembled talking heads will generate tons of free publicity and elevate the film to a prominence it might not otherwise deserve.

Such a move is not entirely unprecedented, of course. Ann Coulter likes to "joke" about assassinating those who disagree with her, and similar figures often speak in equally extreme terms in order to claim the spotlight for a nanosecond or two. Such is the coarseness of discourse in this day and age, a fact that Death of a President endeavors to comment on without descending into similar demagoguery. But love him or hate him, George Bush has generated the kind of emotions that a film like this needs to address in more substantive terms. If grappling with such an inconceivable act produces nothing more than curiosity at whether the feds will get the killer by the time the final credits roll, then something vital has been lost in the mix. Death of a President ultimately fails because it can't fill that all-important void.

Review published 10.27.2006.

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