Death of a President (2006)

This movie was one of my top choices at Toronto Film Fest. Unfortunately, the media blew the controversy out of proportion as soon as the film was announced, and I could not get a ticket to see it back in September. The good news, I was able to see it before it rolls out in movie theaters this coming Friday. The bad news is that the media is still desperately trying to bury/boycott/kill this movie, all without a valid reason. The movie theaters might be empty – a real shame. Death of a President is an odd film, but it has a point to make, makes it splendidly, and despite the volatile subject matter, deals with it in a mature way. Anyone, and I mean ANYONE who dismisses it as a liberal propaganda, or an invitation for a real assassination of the president has not seen the movie and clearly doesn’t know what s/he is talking about. It’s as if a review was based solely on the title. Why I never…

Death of a President is a documentary set in the future (3-4 years from now), looking back at the assassination of George W. Bush (GWB from now on) in the fall of 2007. Yes, if you didn’t get it by now, it’s a fictional documentary. I don’t want to call it a mockumentary, because there’s nothing mocking about it. If anything, the film is too serious, but that’s one of the rules. Director Gabriel Range has created a fictional universe and decided to document it (fairly). I think the most difficult part would be keeping a straight face. You cannot bend any rules, even if the whole thing is made up. That’s a big accomplishment, even for a documentary. D.O.A.P. assumes a specific world and sticks to it. It is believable, and I give full marks to the writer Simon Finch and actors who have kept up the reality of this world.

Sure, the naysayers will keep pressing: “Why couldn’t this be just a regular movie?” – after all, Hollywood has played with the idea many times – In the Line of Fire, 24, The Sentinel. Because all of them are action flicks. The hero (usually a rugged, or a drunk misfit) saves the target in the nick of time, possibly bleeding, and possibly from many places. There is at least one obligatory chase scene, at least one love interest, a mistrusting boss, and a few red herrings – bad guys who turn out to be unrelated to the assassination. Does that pretty much describe the formula? A presidential assassination is a serious business, and the only way to deal with the subject seriously is to be objective. Objective = documentary. Hence a documentary about a fictional event in the future. Difficult to achieve (more bonus marks for all the “footage”), but it has a point.

And the point is simple – how could this happen, how would America go about investigating such a crime, and what consequences would this have on US relations with the world. We see presidential staff, we hear eulogies, we are treated to a lot of news footage. Again, in a regular movie, a war would be declared, and rockets would light up the skies. This is NOT that kind of a movie. In D.O.A.P. we listen to interviews of people close to GWB, involved in the investigation, related to the suspects – all telling their role, reliving their experiences. So why should we care about a fictional event in the future?

For starters, because even though it’s fiction, it’s pretty close to reality. Disturbingly close. For instance, when Iraq and North Korea are mentioned, it’s frighteningly accurate. The movie was finished in the summer of 2006, how could anyone know back then about Korea’s tests or Iraq’s descent into chaos? A filmmaker with massive documents might have an idea, but still, it’s amazing just how close to reality some of these “future events” are now. And it’s only been two months since anyone saw the film. How accurate will it be when it comes out on DVD? I’m not talking about the assassination, but the whole portrayal of rioting, restless America – was it really odd filmmaking, or wishful thinking? Was it clairvoyance? Or we got so used to seeing everything through a blue or red filter, we lost the ability to put events into perspective. But I digress.

D.O.A.P. deals with an outrageous assumption, and it doesn’t care if you’re along for the ride. The assassination is a given, you walk in knowing that, so don’t waste your time accepting it. If you spend the film trying to understand why GWB needs to be assassinated in order to make the film work, you missed the point. However, if you watch it and suddenly are asking yourself uncomfortable questions about the validity of Patriot Act, misuse of racial profiling, media control of the masses, unusual crowd control methods, the judicial system and finally, bitter reality of diplomatic relations, the movie has accomplished its goal. D.O.A.P. comes out of the gate carrying a loud subversive message – it’s right there in the title. However, as it settles into a familiar “face the camera and share” pattern of a documentary film, you can’t help but wonder about all kinds of things unrelated to GWB. And when you wonder (read: question) that is all a good documentary wants you to do.

Let the pundits tear the film apart, and let big movie chains boycott it. I believe an intelligent film with a point will always find its audience. Simply boycotting it (because someone told you it’s Liberal propaganda) is no different from burying your head in the sand. D.O.A.P. is not critical of GWB (in many ways it’s not about him at all), it simply deals with his assassination and its aftermath, and what it would mean to Americans. It’s an unusual “what-if”, but after seeing the film, it’s a thought worth following.

Find Death of a President in theaters. Go with someone who reads headlines and watches news. Walk out talking – it will be a long conversation, I promise. And it won’t be about left-wing or right-wing issues. It may not even be about politics at all. That’s the subversion – hooking you with an odd idea, presenting it according to the rules, and letting you arrive at many different, universal, personal dilemmas. That’s the biggest and best trick of the film.

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