Gabriel Range’s “Death of a President” premiered amidst heavy controversy at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2006. When you consider the plot, it’s pretty easy to see why. The film is astoundingly multi-leveled and multi-modal: a fictional narrative about the events following the assassination of President George W. Bush in October 2007 done as a documentary a year after it “happened,” all within the overarching framework of a mockumentary/shockumentary, since October 2007 has not happened and George Bush has not been assassinated nor will he be, insh’allah, as they say [insh’allah is Arabic for “God willing”]. Politicians across the American political spectrum roundly condemned the film, though it is unclear if they ever saw the film, when one considers that their comments were irrelevant and that the film couldn’t get distributed in any mainstream theatre.
The film’s modal confusion leaves us with the answer to our question (President George W. Bush dies) but little else. The film refuses to make truth claims and questions our capacity to know any kind of absolute truth in the American political climate minutely covered by 24-hour network news. More on this ambitious picture after you click.
First of all, the film is worth seeing purely for its subject matter and the way it’s done. Most notably, the film uses digital technology to “kill” the “real” George W. Bush. It’s not an actor: there is Bush on screen, shaking hands, shmoozing, and then getting shot. Dick Cheney’s eulogy to Ronald Reagan is digitally re-cut to have Cheney’s face on screen eulogizing Bush by name. Such subject matter and the way it’s presented has the tremendous capacity to turn a mirror on our society and government; it may have an obligation to do so. But it is here that the film fails.
Instead of turning to the wider implications of the assassination of a US President, the picture instead covers the forensics investigation and the attempt to determine who the assassin is. It is here that the film makes its only critique of the Bush regime. Suspects include an anarchist protester with too much information on the President’s schedule, a militant environmentalist who tries to crash the President’s meet-and-greet, a Syrian national with alleged (and largely manufactured) ties to al-Qaida, and, lastly, the father of a young man who died in the Iraq war. The film implicitly tells us that all of these people have legitimate bones to pick with the President (it goes without saying that D.O.A.P. does not condone assassination) but the picture gives us such a multiplicity of perspectives that it’s hard to adopt one or sympathize with one.
Perhaps the reason the film is so unsatisfying is because it resembles our own appallingly pathetic news media. The film is made to look like a TV documentary, like a Frontline special or whatever, with all the flashiness and information that barely scratches the surface. Our 24-hour news media seems to occupy this weird place between informing and entertaining, much like this film. D.O.A.P. isn’t sure if it wants to entertain or inform. There are two ways I read this, the former rather charitable, the latter more likely: 1) either the film knows of its awkward positioning and is criticizing our media by laying bare its unsatisfactory execution, or 2) the film has just as much to answer for as our news media, not asking any hard questions or levying any criticism.
Go out and try to find this movie. You’ll feel really subversive… until you actually watch it.