Death of a President (United Kingdom, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has been one of the hottest tickets everywhere in North America where it has been shown. Now, placed in a limited number of U.S. theaters despite the near-solidarity of a chain multiplex ban, the movie is opening less than two weeks before Election Day. That timing, one could argue, is a bigger political point that anything in the content. I'm referring to the pseudo-documentary Death of a President, which has received an inordinate amount of media coverage and has been tagged with the label "controversial." For this movie, as for Snakes on a Plane, the hype dwarfs the reality. Death of a President is celluloid mediocrity. It's neither interesting nor convincing.

Give the filmmakers credit for drumming up interest in their film. The story is simple enough. In the near future (October 2007, to be precise), a sitting U.S. president is assassinated while attending a fund raiser in Chicago. His assassin is hunted down. Could it be a left wing militant? A pro-Syrian businessman who has traveled to Afghanistan? Or a disaffected ex-military man? The movie is presented like one of those History Channel documentaries, with faux interviews (featuring character actors portraying talking heads) and news footage of the President's last day. The hook, and the only reason anyone is writing about this movie, is that the sitting president is George W. Bush. Death of a President is about the fictional assassination of a man who's still alive.

Does the film cross a line? Perhaps. It's certainly exploitative, and I can understand why the President is uncomfortable about the movie. If this was a serious examination of the possible long-term ramifications of George Bush's current foreign policy, or if it had anything interesting to say about Bush's legacy, it might be justifiable. But that's not the case. The decision to use Bush rather than a fictional representation of him is for no reason other than self-promotion. That makes Death of a President crass in addition to being dull and sloppily assembled.

I am not a supporter of President Bush (as long-time readers are aware), but I have been dismayed by the knee-jerk positive reaction to this film by some Bush detractors. A mediocre movie is a mediocre movie, whether it supports your political position or that of the opposition, and Death of a President is a mediocre movie. It says nothing profound. Ironically, it doesn't take much of a political position at all. It doesn't deal with the potential consequences of how the world might change if Cheney replaced Bush. (There are vague references to the passage of a Patriot III Act, but no explanation of what that entails beyond "expanding the powers of the Executive Branch.") Death of a President seems exclusively interested in indicating that if you're a suspect in an assassination, being a Muslim might not be a good thing.

Some have argued that the movie illustrates how the Bush Administration's post-9/11 policies could be extended into a fictitious future and used to railroad an innocent man into a conviction because it is politically expedient. Such an argument displays a lack of historical perspective. 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.

The film uses doctored archived news footage of Bush, Cheney, and others to create its fictional 2007. That would be a clever way to assemble a view of the near future if some of the alterations were accomplished with more aptitude - something that should not be difficult in this era of CGI. (In fact, the CGI enhanced assassination scene is effective, in part because it happens so quickly.) In some cases, it's possible to see where overdubbing occurred. For example, in one instance, Dick Chaney's lips are forming one name while his voice is saying "George Bush." The visual/audio mismatch is so blatant that there were titters in the audience. Director Gabriel Range may have a vision, but the technical inconsistency with which he brings it to the screen hurts its presentation, and the amount of time he spends on faux forensics is enough to put even die-hard CSI fans to sleep.

Despite the hype, Death of a President will likely amount to little. Given the opportunity to see it, expect to be unimpressed. The first half has its share of involving moments (as Bush's final hours are recounted), but it turns tedious during the lengthy post-assassination investigation. Range believes he has made an important film, but it would be hard to support that view based on the on-screen evidence. 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. Death of a President recalls the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes, which are no clothes at all.

Death of a President (United Kingdom, 2006)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2006-10-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1