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Death of a President

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Death of a President

When the packed audience in the Cumberland theatre at the Toronto Film Festival left the screening of the new film, Death of a President, they could honestly say they had just witnessed President George W. Bush being assassinated in front of the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago.  

The first film screening was an over-hyped event. A half hour before the screening, the line snaked around 4 blocks.

“DOAP” stands for “Death of a President”. It was directed by Gabriel Range and produced by the film production arm of Britain's Channel 4 Television. Even as a docudrama, it is a hybrid—innovative, ambitious, and not entirely successful.

The entire film consists of existing documentary or news footage which has been digitally manipulated. When President Bush is shot as he moves through a crowd toward the presidential limousine, Bush's head was digitally grafted onto the body of an actor. In other sequences, the footage is actual, but shown out of context—as, for example, when the President arrives to give a speech at the Economic Club of Chicago, meets President Daley and Chicago business leaders. President Bush was there, but at another time, in a different context.

The narrative is propelled by several actors in roles like Bush's speechwriter, a Secret Service agent, and the FBI agent leading the investigation into the assassination. They speak into the camera in first person. They give us the narrative arc, a linear progression and context for the events.

All of this is executed with nearly seamless brilliance.

The plot is simple. President Bush arrives to give the speech. He is met by 10,000 protesters on La Salle Street, who later on move toward the hotel. The police are stretched to the limits. After his folksy speech, Bush moves through the reception line out of the hotel. There he is shot by a sniper. The limousine speeds off to the hospital. The police and the FBI gather all of the surveillance footage, locate the shells from the high-powered rifle fired from a nearby high rise. They arrest a Syrian-born man. Circumstantial evidence—he took a trip to the Middle East—serves as the foundation for his arrest, trial and conviction. In the meantime, we learn that the real assassin was the father of a soldier who lost his life in Iraq. The convicted Arab killer remains in jail—he is a better fit for the terrorist “narrative” that the post-Bush administration would have the public believe.

Perhaps the most chilling moments in the film are confronting the unthinkable—seeing Dick Cheney in the role of President.

Occasionally, there are small disconnects in the Death of a President narrative, and the whole film rings improbable but very plausible. This is both a testament to Gabriel Range's considerable skills as a filmmaker and because it feeds into what we already know. I doubt that, besides possibly the heavy security at the screening, there were too many Bush sympathizers at the Toronto Film Festival screening.

The entire film is set in a fictional future. It's been bought for U.S. distribution by Newmarket Films, the same distribution company which orchestrated the successful release of Mel Gibson's Passion. They are obviously skilled at exploiting controversy. Baiting the Republicans to step into the breach and bash the film didn't take long. The White House refused to comment, but Death of a President has already been called “upmarket political porn” and will undoubtedly serve as fodder for right-wing media bluster.

Gabriel Range, the director, said that he wanted to make a film that would explore “how America has been affected by the ‘War on Terror.' ” The exploration his film gives this theme is grim but shallow. It boils down to: “A war veteran whose soldier son lost his life in a war based on lies takes revenge while an innocent Arab man in the wrong place at the wrong time is convicted for the crime.” The grimmer realization is that in the film, after President Bush dies, nothing changes.

But does the end justify the means? The documentary film form has been destroyed by blatant manipulation of material, the use of footage out of context, re-enactments. ABC-TV'S weekend broadcast of The Road to 9/11 is a recent notorious example. However noble its sentiments, razzle-dazzle its technique, there is something sick and very misconceived about Death of a President. It has no clear point of view. It's hard to judge the filmmakers' intent. Was it just sensationalism? Perhaps. The film says nothing we don't already know The controversy which will ensue when the film is released will change nothing. There will be arguments over a film which is pretty empty rather than arguments about what really counts: the legitimacy, truth and cost in human lives in the so-called “War on Terror.”

This is Milos Stehlik for Chicago Public Radio's Worldview.

Worldview film contributor Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia.

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