George W. Bush is assassinated in the fictional, futuristic documentary "Death of a President."
And the point is ... what, exactly?
Director and co-writer Gabriel Range may not even know.
His film is an undeniable technical achievement, with its clever, seamless mix of manipulated archival images and manufactured footage. Having first aired on British television, it has a cadence and structure reminiscent of shows like "Cold Case Files" on A&E (though it isn't nearly so intriguing).
And some of the performances are quite authentic among the fake talking heads interviewed afterward, including Brian Boland as the guilt-stricken head of the Secret Service detail and Hend Ayoub as the wife of the man charged with the killing (a Syrian and a Muslim, which is just too easy).
But once President Bush is gunned down - while leaving a Chicago hotel on Oct. 19, 2007 - the movie dies, as well. The novelty of Range's technique wears off, and all that's left is the mind-numbing mire of the shooting investigation. (Like the JFK assassination, Bush is shot by a lone gunman. And like the JFK assassination, myriad conspiracy theories abound nonetheless.)
Range, who wrote the script with Simon Finch, has said his intention was to "offer another perspective on what's happened in the last five years" since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While the British filmmaker hints at indictments of the Patriot Act and general worldwide paranoia, he never really hits his targets.
He depicts an America more volatile and vitriolic toward the president than it is now - just a few days before midterm elections. Protesters burst through barricades as Bush arrives to address the Economic Club of Chicago (a speech he actually gave) then battle police in riot gear. The president brings the house down (at least according to his speechwriter, played by Becky Ann Baker) and insists on greeting folks along the rope line on the way to his car, despite the violence percolating all around the hotel.
Death of a President **
George W. Bush is assassinated in this fictional, futuristic documentary. And the point is ... what, exactly? Director and co-writer Gabriel Range may not even know. His film is an undeniable technical achievement, with its clever, seamless mix of manipulated archival images and manufactured footage, but the novelty soon wears off.
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Shots ring out, and chaos ensues. Bush dies in surgery, and Dick Cheney is sworn in as the 44th president. Officials from Chicago police (Robert Mangiardi) and the FBI (Michael Reilly Burke) solemnly recall the day's events while maintaining that they did the right thing and value the expanded investigative freedoms they've enjoyed in response to the president's murder.
There's nothing campy about any of this, nothing overtly satirical. Range plays it all in deadly straight fashion - floating the idea that Cheney would use the Bush assassination as revenge against enemies and would have evidence doctored to suit his own personal and political purposes - to the point that "Death of a President" becomes suffocating in its self-seriousness.
Range may have intended all of this as a pointed political statement about fears of terrorism, about the war in Iraq, about America's place in the world. Instead, it plays like a gratuitous gimmick.