Gabrielle Range's Death of a President was denounced unseen from all directions. Right-wing talk radio personalities criticized it, as did Kevin Costner and Hillary Clinton. In some ways, that echoes the film's greatest concerns: the shortcuts in evidence or reason that follow tumultuous events.
To dispatch some of the sillier allegations, the film in no way advocates or enjoys its central plot point, the assassination of President George Bush following an October 2007 speech to business leaders in Chicago. Almost all talk about Bush in the film is by his admiring staff and he is cast in heroic terms. The film has also been billed as a political thriller, which is even a stretch. Instead, the film wades into the response to such a major catastrophic event. Constructed as a documentary airing in 2008, it's less of a whodunit mystery than a virtual-reality experience in paranoia.
Range very skillfully blends file footage of Bush, vice-president or president in this movie, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and other administration officials with interviews of fictitious police, FBI agents, a Bush speechwriter, family members of accused assailants and others. Long scenes of Cheney giving a eulogy and Bush joking about what he has in common with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley foster an eerie sense of reality. The faux interviews are typically identifiable for their extraordinarily even-keeled composure given the gravity of the situation and that many interviewees have failed miserably at protecting the president. They also lack the disjointed nature of candid, unscripted speech, though erring on the side of fluency is not really a distraction in the film.
Prior to the assassination, Range sets up his line of faux inquiry. He uses footage of an actual 2005 demonstration against the Iraq war that took place in Chicago. Fake Secret Service agents and police officials talk about handling security for the event. What's an appropriate level of suspicion for them to act on, and how far can they go? Where will the Secret Service's job collide with the protestors' free speech? They also press the question that if a crowd of demonstrators provides easy cover for a would-be assassin, can they deny everyone the right to gather and express themselves. One of the more amusing moments in the film comes when an implicated man says that protesting is useless since Bush doesn't listen to anyone anyway.
The bulk of the documentary is about the initial focus on a Syrian-born Muslim suspect named Zikri. Clearly he's risen to the top of the list because of his nation of origin and religious affiliation. Immediately the investigation is propelled less by forensic evidence than circumstantial evidence. When news organizations then jump on the speculation, the presumption of guilt is nearly guaranteed.
The framework of the film is about 9/11 much more than a possible future terrorist attack. The initial frames taken are from a plane flying over the skyscrapers of a city as a Muslim woman laments the way in which all Muslims have suffered for the fanaticism of a few. The Iraq war is also painted as an ongoing source of radicalization on both sides, and sets up a chicken and egg argument about whether terrorism begets war or war begets terrorism. And once the cycle starts, how does it end.
Range skillfully mimics the mediums of live television news and documentary, and the plot both visually and structurally mirrors a host of historic events and images. While the actual assassination is screened as shots ring out to a blurred crowd scene, and makes the R rating for brief violence hard to fathom, the set up of the crowd scene resembles camera angles from famous video of John Hinckley's attempt to kill President Ronald Reagan. When it's revealed that the shots came from a high window at a hotel across the street as the president approached his waiting motorcade, the John F. Kennedy assassination and the Texas School Book Depository come to mind. And in case you miss it, FBI agents later find a 'lone gunman' scenario doubtful as they reason that a terrorist plot must involve a network of accomplices. The analogies seem to flow endlessly, so what's coincidence and what's design? When Zikri becomes the prime suspect, President Cheney obsesses about establishing a link to Syrian President Assad, clearly a reference to Bush and Saddam Hussein. But there are many curious angles. Could this be another Oklahoma City bombing and is valuable time being given to a Timothy McVeigh-like killer to go into hiding. If an innocent man is sent to Gitmo, or convicted of the crime, then what happens to the actual murderer and surviving source of the threat.
The truly frightening proposition in the film is not that the president could be assassinated but that the killer would be allowed to go free because he didn't meet preconceived notions of who or what he must be. Range's blending of fact and fiction is a perfect means to ask whether justice is presented in a similar fashion.
- The faux documentary Death of a President kicks into a frenzy when the doctors announce they have failed to save George Bush.