Death of a President
2006, R, 90 min. Directed by Gabriel Range. Starring Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Becky Ann Baker, Robert Mangiardi, Jay Patterson, Jay Whittaker, Michael Reilly Burke, James Urbaniak, Neko Parham.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 27, 2006
There is a lot of hype and hysteria surrounding this British film, because one of its plot points is the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush in 2007. Talking heads pontificate about the film's immorality without having seen a single frame of footage, a couple of theatre chains have refused to book it on their screens, and the title was condensed to the less inflammatory D.O.A.P. when it premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. If hype can be translated into box-office dollars, then Death of a President could be a runaway hit. No amount of hype, however, can turn this into a terrific movie. It's more a sleight of hand than a persuasive drama. Filmed as a fake documentary, the movie uses a mix of existing news footage and dramatized sequences to present a vision of the aftermath of a presidential assassination in this post-9/11 day and age. The first half-hour is spellbinding as we witness Bush's visit to a Chicago speaking engagement, the swarm of protesters crowding the streets along the motorcade route and hotel, and the one-on-one interviews with key participants in the events – Secret Service agents, a speechwriter, family members of the accused, and so on, all played by actors behaving as though they're speaking to a documentary camera. Technically, the movie is flawless: Footage is interwoven so seamlessly and chosen so precisely that the illusion of reality is never in question. Range's movie then gradually falters as the focus turns to the aftermath rather than the assassination itself. The new President Dick Cheney instructs the agents to look for a Syrian, and they do, while ignoring other leads. The PATRIOT Act III is passed into law as Americans sheepishly accept their new reality. Range does not prove especially shrewd about American racial politics or police procedurals, and Death of a President quickly grows more and more implausible as a result. Dramatic escalation falls by the wayside and gives way to political axe-grinding. By the end, there's nothing to admire except Range's technical virtuosity.