The Emperor's New Clothes

September 28, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

2006, more than any other recent twelve-month period, has been a year when hype and controversy have sold movies. From United 93 to World Trade Center, from The Da Vinci Code to Snakes on a Plane, studios have been courting the free advertising that comes from doing things that push people's hot buttons. But no film has been more guilty of delivering less content to go with more controversy than Death of a President, the British pseudo-documentary that screened earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival and will be coming soon to a theater near you. This movie is a perfect example of The Emperor's New Clothes. The guy's naked, but the critics are lining up to praise his wardrobe.

One school of criticism argues that anything controversial must be good. A related school accepts that any movie that adopts the political viewpoint of the critic is good. I reject both approaches because I find them to be fundamentally dishonest. It's not necessary to agree with a movie to admire its craftsmanship. Herein lies the difference between Fahrenheit 9/11 and Triumph of the Will. Both are propaganda. However, Triumph of the Will is superbly made, while Fahrenheit 9/11 has the feel of something slapped together in a hurry. Yet many critics will condemn Triumph of the Will because they don't like its politics and praise Fahrenheit 9/11 because they agree with Michael Moore. If I was to reduce film criticism to that level, I would agree with them. However, I have no moral qualms about recommending Triumph of the Will. It's an important film, and appreciating it does not make one a Nazi. Likewise, I suffer no pangs of conscience for recommending that viewers stay away from Fahrenheit 9/11. It isn't an important piece of filmmaking. (In fact, it's not even an interesting one.)

I am not a George W. Bush supporter. I believe he has done more damage to this country than any president in the last 75 years except Richard Nixon. I will rejoice in January 2009 when he leaves office. It's hard to imagine anyone - Democrat or Republican - doing a worse job. 10 years ago, the United States was regarded with respect across most of the globe. Today, it's either a laughingstock or a magnet for hatred, depending on which country you're in. Most of that is the fault of George "nucular" Bush.

Based on my political perspective alone, I should love Death of a President, which presents a fictional scenario in which Bush is assassinated in 2007 in Chicago. The problem is, while it may represent wish fulfillment for 90% of those who are reviewing it, it is not a well made motion picture. From a technical standpoint, it's clumsy and amatuerish (there's one voice dub when it's clear the lips are saying one thing while the soundtrack says another). From a cinematic standpoint, it's dull. Yet many critics are praising it for its daring.

One key point to argue is raised by Jim Emerson, the perceptive film critic who acts as the webmaster of In Emerson's look at Death of a President, he makes the following observation: "What the film does is to take the real events that have characterized the Bush administration -- particularly its most infamous political modus operandi of marshaling selected and manufactured 'facts' to fit a preordained conclusion -- and transpose them from the past into the future. When a forensics expert talks about the evidence against a suspect as being supportive but, in itself, inconclusive... and says he was told repeatedly to 'look again' to strengthen a weak case, it's exactly like the CIA analysts who were interviewed in several 'Frontline' documentaries talking about the phony case the administration made for the invasion of Iraq." I don't disagree with much of what Emerson says, but his conclusions are skewed by his politics. While it's true that injustices are committed on the way to convicting someone of the Death of a President assassination, this is not a case of Bush's policies being "transposed from the past to the future." It's a reality of any high-profile crime (past, current, or future) that there is an incredible amount of pressure placed on Law Enforcement to arrest someone, even if that person turns out to be a patsy. Bush's policies have nothing to do with this. How many people doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone? How many theories are there that Sirhan Sirhan wasn't the one who fired the fatal shots at RFK? The list goes on... The cops pounce. A suspect is jailed. A trial is held. The suspect is convicted. The public feels justice has been done. That's the way things have always been in America. Trying to tie this into Bush's policies is a leap down a blind alley.

These are the kinds of justifications emerging when a film critic defends the movie. It requires an astounding degree of naivete to find anything compelling about the film's themes. It's also interesting to note that the majority of the movie's most ardent supporters, like its director, live outside of the United States (Emerson is an exception). This fits with my theory that the affection for the film is based largely upon its potential for wish fulfillment. Death of a President eliminates Bush, proposes that civil injustices were done in arresting an assassin, and pretty much ignores the fact that Dick Cheney ascends to the Oval Office. Fictionally killing a real person, regardless of how poorly liked he is, is tacky at best and unwarranted at worst. Could it be justified for a powerful, thought-provoking movie? Yes, but neither of those descriptors applies here. For wish fulfillment, why not make an alternate history movie in which Al Gore won the 2000 election? All we have with Death of a President is a mediocre fake documentary hiding behind a curtain of controversy. The Emperor's New Clothes are no clothes at all.