Death of a President
There are main purposes that cinema can serve. Sure we all know about entertainment and even to provoke discussion. One inventive format film can take is exploring a ‘what if’ scenario. Here the film makers take a situation and give it a little twist. For example there were films that showed a present day where the Nazis where not defeated or the Soviet Union took over the United States. The latest film by Gabriel Range, ‘The Death of a President’ takes such an alternate reality view of the current global political and social climate. In a way it is a difficult film to watch. The most obvious reason is the movie is flawed; it tries too hard to combine a documentary style with a thriller and mystery. The second reason is more on the emotional level but not one directly inferred by the script. For those of my generation it is too reminiscent of the John F. Kennedy assignation. Those memories are such that they remain after decades and this film captures some of the emotional feel of that time. While the film could have been better it meets the requirements if set out to. It inspires conversation and even a little bit of controversy and I am certain that was the goal of the director. Even if a film fails to out together as a piece of cinema if it can result in a frank and open discussion of present and pressing events, it has done its job.
The film is presented as a British documentary made several a couple of years after the even. On October 19, 2007 President Bush was in Chicago to speak and a conference, the Economic Club of Chicago. While outside the Sheraton Hotel there is an anti-war rally and President Bush is fatally shot by an unseen sniper. Vice President Dick Cheney is rapidly sworn in as the 44th President of the Untied States and immediately makes a public promise to bring the murder to justice. Syria becomes the prime focus of the investigation and ties to al-Qaeda are strongly inferred. A man of Syrian background, Jamal Abu Zikri (Hend Ayoub) quickly becomes the prime suspect. President Cheney also calls for the passing of Patriot Act -3, a move that will give unheard of powers to numerous law enforcement agencies virtually sweeping away many civil rights in the name of security. There is also a movement in favor of a military attack on Syria.
The mock documentary has the standard compliment of talking head experts of pontificate on the numerous conspiracy theories that that popped up as well as the socio-political implications of the assignation of the American president. They talk on with their degrees and qualification presented as validation for their statements. Like any real documentary this film shows how all the news networks gather anyone they can possibly get their hands on to fill the 24 hour news cycle. While the media fills every possible minute with the same footage of the assignation the people in the Cheney White House are busy planning their next moves. As President Cheney and his advisors discuss the response to the tragedy senior speech writer Eleanor Drake (Becky Ann Baker) is concerned with the right way to announce the new Patriot Act and sell it to the public.
The second half of the ‘documentary’ looks at the man accused and ultimately convicted of the crime. The forensic evidence was somewhat shaky, technicians were told to reexamine the evidence when the initial determination indicated it was supportive bit not conclusive. The American people and more importantly, the new administration needed a definitive resolution. Zikri was the perfect man to accuse. He was a Muslim immigrant and a veteran of the Iraqi war with a history of depression. He was a face he public could believe was capable of killing the president. As the film discloses a more rational suspect would be an American whose son had died in the war. In a suicide note he states "There's no honor in standing for an immoral cause. George Bush killed our David and I can't forgive him". Even with this compelling evidence at the time of the documentary Zikri was still in prison.
Director and co-author of the screenplay, Gabriel Range, takes great care not to tread over the line with his work. No concrete violence is shown. The actual shooting of President Bush is not seen but occurs off camera. This at least demonstrates some degree of restraint on his part and a good measure of social responsibility. He as also captured the essence of any political documentary. The style is perfectly presented from the numerous experts dissecting the events to the whiff of conspiracy theory. Parallels to the political and social worlds after 9-11 just add to the realism of the work. While watching there is a division to conscious thought; you know this is just a film but there is the understanding that these events just could possibly happen. Range has experience in this sort of film. His prior film, ‘The Day Britain Stopped’ depicted what could happen if the British transportation system ground to a halt. He is able to balance realism with flair. There is a gritty feel juxtaposed with the slickness of experts. Notable is the way some stock footage is slightly altered to fit the scenario presented. For example, the eulogy given by Cheney is taken almost directly from the one he gave at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan. A few words are altered digitally to fit but the overall sentiment comes across. This also brings to mind just how easy it is to take actual footage and bend it to whatever purpose may be desired.
Some have criticized this film as irresponsible. A can’t agree on this count. The work raises questions that demand to be discussed. The trade off between personal freedom and security is real and a pressing issue today. The issue of a government taking advantage of a national tragedy to further a political agenda is one that is one many minds. When a secrete service agent is interviewed here he states that personal freedom including the right to demonstrate is fine but when the crowds press over the line towards the president it becomes a matter of security. The film may lose momentum towards the end but the questions it raises will remain long after the closing credits. The film doesn’t hold as a mystery or thriller but it does work as a political commentary.
Lion’s Gate presents this film on DVD with their usual attention to detail. The widescreen video is realistic and well done. The color palette is reasonable considering the feel the film maker intended. The audio is in Dolby stereo which works for the format. Having something other than two channel sound would have just brought the audience out of the made for British television documentary. I would have enjoyed a director’s commentary but unfortunately this is a plain vanilla release. This is something that responsible adults should watch and discuss.