As a medium-left liberal with a fierce belief in free speech and artistic expression, I'm proud to live in a country where the government can't prevent the release of a fictional film depicting the assassination of the real-life president.
That said, I find the idea repugnant and morally objectionable. Ever since early September, when the Drudge Report posted a dramatic, black-and-white "news photo" fictionalizing the assassination of President Bush, the docudrama Death of a President has been the centre of much controversy -- and deserved criticism. For once, it seemed fair to critique at least the premise of a film without even seeing it. Whether you believe George Bush is a fiendishly clever war criminal, a hapless puppet or the greatest international leader since Churchill, he is also a fellow human being with a wife and children and parents, and there's something inherently unseemly about imagining this man's murder for the purposes of entertainment, talk radio discussion and cocktail party debates. (How would you like it if someone was asking people to pay nine bucks for a movie about your sudden and violent death?)
Death of a President is more offensive as a concept than as a work of film. Writer/director Gabriel Range -- who explored a similar "What if?" scenario in 2003 with The Day Britain Stopped, in which he imagined what would happen if all public transportation in his native country came to a halt -- handles the faux documentary footage of the assassination with considerable restraint. This isn't some cheesy drama with a look-alike actor playing Bush, grimacing in close-up as he takes a bullet and falls to the pavement. It's all about quick cuts, herky-jerky camera movements, fleeting glimpses of things going wrong. Range skilfully employs news footage from real events, taking them out of context and weaving them into his story line, set in the fall of 2007, when the president goes to Chicago and is gunned down outside the Sheraton Hotel.
In fact, the "documentary" is actually set about a year after that night, with key players from the evening sharing reflections and insights with an unseen interviewer. A Secret Service agent, a Chicago cop who was in charge of local security, a presidential speechwriter, the wife of the man accused of killing the president -- they all share their memories of the fateful chain of events. The actors portraying these people aren't particularly natural or spontaneous-sounding -- but then again, they're playing people who wouldn't naturally be that comfortable in the front of the camera, talking about the most devastating moments of their lives.
We're told that the protesters who gathered in Chicago in October of 2007 were agitated and confrontational -- spoiling for trouble. At one point during the day, some of them break through police barricades and actually make contact with the presidential motorcade, in a scene convincingly filmed by Range. Nevertheless, Bush proceeds with his schedule and gives a speech that night to a business conference at the Sheraton. (Range uses actual footage of a Bush speech in Chicago, with familiar faces such as William Daley on the dais.) Despite the warnings of his top bodyguards, the president decides to work the rope line outside the Sheraton -- and that's when shots ring out. As Bush is rushed to Northwestern Hospital, authorities shut down the perimeter and the search for suspects is on. Local touches abound, from the locations to the likes of Joel Daly as a news anchor (believable!) and Walter Jacobson as the Larry King of this parallel universe, conducting interviews on a news-oriented talk show.
This movie is called Death of a President. I give nothing away by telling you the president dies. From that point on, the film's most egregious offense is becoming predictable and heavy-handed. A Syrian man with questionable ties to terrorist activity is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death, even though there's a paucity of concrete evidence against him. President Cheney grabs power by the double fistful, using the mood of the times to push through Patriot Act III, giving the government even more authority to abuse individual rights in the name of Homeland Security. When a story in the Chicago Sun-Times provides solid evidence that the real assassin may in fact be a disillusioned, distraught Gulf War veteran from downstate Illinois, the FBI isn't particularly interested in pursuing the case. Who cares if an innocent man sits on death row? He fits the profile.
Great. Thanks for the lecture in liberal politics. We live in precarious, frightening times, when civil liberties are routinely sacrificed in the pursuit of national security, when wars are waged for reasons still not entirely clear -- but things could even be worse in the near future.
This is the lesson of Death of a President, and if that's not preaching to the choir, we might as well retire that phrase.