Volume 76, Number 24 | November 1 - 7, 2006

Film

Death becomes him
Why New Yorkers should see the controversial 'Death of a President'

Newmarket Films
“Death of a President” imagines a world without Bush ­— one that is apparently too offensive for politicians and the media to imagine.

By Will McKinley

If I were President Bush, I would stay away from Chicago on October 19th of next year. That’s the date (and the location) of the “assassination” of the 43rd president of the United States in the fictional documentary “Death of a President” which opened in New York last Friday.

Directed by British documentarian Gabriel Range, the controversial movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10 and was released in the U.S. by Newmarket Films, the company that distributed “Passion of the Christ.” And like Mel Gibson’s film, “Death of a President” has generated more than its share of debate. In addition to the expected vitriol from Republicans, Democratic senator Hillary Clinton has called the film “despicable,” CNN and NPR have refused to air commercials promoting it and the Regal, Cinemark and AMC theater chains have banned it from their screens.

I saw “Death of a President” on opening night at the Angelika, the independent film mecca that lies on the border between the Village and Soho, among the most liberal neighborhoods in the United States. And, as Secretary Rumsfield might say, everybody should just back off. There is no anti-Bush political agenda in the film, nor is there any implication that offing the president would be a good idea.

The film accurately characterizes the divisive, highly charged state of the current political climate in this country. Through staged interviews with actors playing Secret Service, FBI agents and presidential advisors, Bush is eulogized with respect and admiration. His assassination by a sniper’s bullet is presented more as the tragic result of politically troubled times than as retribution. In a perverse sense, the assassination transforms Bush from bumbler into martyr; a principled man who dies fighting for a cause in which he firmly believes. By heroicizing Bush, “Death of a President” absolves him from his policy failures, and elevates him to the rarefied company of other U.S. presidents who have died in the pursuit of an unpopular cause. It’s George Bush as the Abe Lincoln of the new millennium.

The problem with this film is not that it’s overtly political, it’s that it’s overtly boring. The first half hour is intense and riveting, updating us on the deteriorating political climate of the near future, the increasingly unruly war protests and the President’s unrelenting devotion to staying the course. But then Range makes a crucial mistake: He kills off his star. Once the shooting has occurred, and the president has gone to the Big Ranch in the Sky, the drama and tension in “Death of a President” disappears.

The movie does a competent job of aping a PBS documentary-style deconstruction of the convoluted events that led up to and followed the assassination, but who cares? It’s sort of like having King Kong fall off the Empire State building at the beginning of the movie, and then spending an hour explaining how and why it happened. After the shooting, all that is left is mop-up detail, but we have no investment in learning this detail, and it is not presented in a way that makes us care.

And yet, that doesn’t absolve politicians, broadcast media, and national theater chains from attempting to squelch a film that inspires debate through provocation. In times of cultural and political strife it is the responsibility of artists to challenge the status quo, and to tell stories that some people would rather not hear, even if they sometimes fail. “Death of a President” does not fail, at least for the first half or so. And half of a thought-provoking movie is better than all of “Saw III.” So here’s my advice: go see “Death of a President.” If you’re bored, walk out in the middle. After all, you already know how it ends: President Cheney.

If those two words don’t keep Bush from actually getting assassinated, nothing will.

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