Censored in the USA

October 12, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Censor: to examine (as a publication or film) in order to suppress or delete any contents considered objectionable. [Miriam-Webster; emphasis mine]

Death of a President is opening in the United States next week... sort of. I am already on record as saying this is not a very good movie, but that's not the issue here. This could be the worst or the best made movie of all time and I would still be writing this column. The push to keep this picture out of theaters is the most egregious act of attempted censorship I have ever seen in this country - worse than The Last Temptation of Christ, worse than Fahrenheit 9/11, and worse than The Passion of the Christ. (Curious how Jesus and Bush end up in the crosshairs of some of the most heavily protested movies of recent years.)

This is not China. One of the great positives about this country is that almost any view, no matter how unpopular or contrarian, can be aired. Yet there is a concerted effort to keep Gabriel Range's movie out of theaters. Several of the country's largest multiplex chains have refused to show it. Why? Because the idea of a fictional account of the assassination of a sitting president offends their sensibilities? Not really. These are big boys who aren't easily offended. Instead, it's because they see the opportunity to score political brownie points.

This crosses a dangerous line, in my opinion: movie theaters trying to choke the pipeline so movie-goers can't see something. I'm lucky enough to live in an area where there are several independent theaters. If I wanted to, I could see DOAP. But what about those who have set up home in areas where the only option is a theater that belongs to one of the chains where it is policy not to show this movie? Wait for the DVD, I suppose.

It's the c-word, as in "censorship." The movie is not being shunned because it is artistically unworthy or commercially unviable. It is being shunned because a group of politically motivated bigwigs do not want movie-goers to view it. They are forcing their values on us. It's that simple. Choice has been removed. We're being told what's good for us. If a viewer is offended by the idea of a fictional documentary about the assassination of George Bush, there's an easy solution: don't see it. Stay home. Watch TV. Censoring the movie by making it unavailable to a significant portion of the American movie-going audience isn't the answer. In fact, it's downright un-America. I repeat, this isn't China (where films are routinely banned and censored).

As a footnote, I should note that I am not an advocate of total freedom of expression. I agree with banning video that depicts real death, dismemberment, rape, etc. Death of a President, however, is neither a snuff film nor is it kiddie porn. It doesn't come close to crossing any moral or ethical line, and it bears none of the hallmarks of a movie for which a legitimate censorship case can be made.

The irony in all this is that the controversy is making Death of a President a hot commmodity. Newmarket is happy. Those theaters that open the movie next week will make some money. Had the movie generated no press and been forced to stand on its own merits, it would have come and gone quickly and quietly. But the hornet's nest has been stirred. People will drive long distances to see it. Reviewers will be kinder to it than it deserves because it's a victim. Censor something, and it becomes a martyr. That's what we're looking at with Death of a President. It's no longer a movie, it's a cause.