DEATH OF A PRESIDENT (Gabriel Range, 2006)
A film about the future assassination and death of a sitting President is a lightning rod for controversy if ever there was one. It comes as no surprise that some national theater chains have refused to book DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, a documentary that hypothesizes how President George W. Bush might be killed. Blending staged scenes with actors and manipulated file footage, director Gabriel Range constructs a believable account of the President's final hours and the political repercussions of his murder.
Structured like a longform television news piece, DEATH OF A PRESIDENT recounts the events of October 19, 2007 and the subsequent investigation through interviews with eyewitnesses and agents on the case.
The President is visiting Chicago to give a speech on the economy. The Iraq War and tense relations with North Korea have caused thousands of protesters to flock to the site and try to have their voices heard. The Secret Service is wary of the situation, especially when one person breaks through the barricades and smacks the President's car, but he makes it into the Sheraton and to the appointment unharmed. It's not until a meeting with supporters that a sniper mortally injures the American leader.
The bulk of the film is concerned with the politically motivated investigation and the legislation that is passed to increase governmental surveillance powers. DEATH OF A PRESIDENT does not imply that the assassination is part of a conspiracy, but there are suggestions that the President's death is used as a tool to advance President Cheney's interests.
As inflammatory as the subject matter might seem, Range's film is a staid, even somber, piece that takes no satisfaction in the assassination of a head of state. Presumably the director is not fond of Bush's policies, but DEATH OF A PRESIDENT doesn't cater to those who fantasize about the worst befalling Bush. The assassination itself is obstructed through a jumble of people colliding once shots have been fired. A protective circle forms immediately around the wounded President and keeps viewers from seeing much of anything. The Zapruder film this isn't.
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT'S premise will outrage some, although Range tries not to offend. He's made a sober film that explores how such an incident might impact the American Muslim community regardless of who the killer might be. He also looks at how investigators and government officials might justify chipping away at privacy in the name of finding the killer and keeping the population safe.
Range has expertly interwoven real and simulated footage to make a film that looks convincing, but it amounts to little more than a clever editing exercise. DEATH OF A PRESIDENT theorizes what might happen. The problem is it doesn't play effectively as a warning of a near future. The conclusions are hardly revelatory. The dry, matter of fact presentation will keep dissenters at bay, but for such a potentially controversial film, it's relatively boring. The idea of this speculative documentary will rattle some cages, but the execution of it will inspire indifference.
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT'S structure doesn't work within the universe the film imagines. The film would have been released after the assassination and trial, yet it holds the twists until the end. Anyone who lived through the events would already know the secrets that the film squirrels away for its last reels. A more interesting and productive approach would have been to put this information at the beginning, not to mention that it would have better fulfilled the film's conceit.