Death of a President

"Please God, don't let it be a Muslim who has done this."

Understandably, everyone is looking for the political message in Death of a President. Considering the major American theater chains have pretty much unanimously — and childishly, and cowardly — blacklisted the film, and considering that it is only a hot item because of its potential to cause a political firestorm, everyone can hardly be blamed. But the most interesting thing about this compelling if largely frivolous mockumentary, to this professedly liberal and Bush-despising viewer, has nothing to do with propaganda, and everything to do with the maelstrom of emotions it inspires.

The biggest surprise is the intensity of my aversion to the titular event. Now, I’d like to think that aside from some particularly nasty villains in silly action or horror, I don’t anticipate characters’ deaths with glee, never mind hypothetical deaths of real people. But as Bush certainly approaches “particularly nasty villain” status, and as I have described the film’s gimmick as “pretty cool,” I was expecting to get some sort of perverse thrill out of seeing the imaginary assassination. A character opines that “if you believe in the death penalty, [Bush] is a candidate.” I don’t know about that, but he’s a pretty bad guy — and this is all in good fun, right?

Apparently not, because the run-up to the October 19th, 2007 assassination of George W. Bush, meticulously fabricated from fake documentary interviews and real footage from a presidential visit to Chicago, is chilling, and my fervent desire to see the president safe took me aback. This wasn’t just some generalized desire to steer clear of human casualties; he’s the President, after all; for better or worse a symbol of our nation. You don’t kill the President.

So it’s upsetting from that perspective, but there is really sadness in every corner of this film. Protest footage is used for more than merely showing an angry mob, though there’s plenty of anger on display; seeing a woman brandish a sign reading “Why is My Son in Iraq?” is heartbreaking, and momentarily turns the table on the imminent death of the President. The movie’s grounding in reality proves important here, and at the same time as it may make you fear for George W. Bush’s life, it will make you fear for the country.

This whirlwind of misery originates in a movie that’s actually not terribly thoughtful or mature. The resolution — inexplicably framed as a “surprise ending,” though had this been a real documentary it wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone — is exceptionally smug, a preachy and obvious “gotcha” that follows an FBI attempt to scapegoat a Muslim. It’s feeble as satire and heavy-handed as commentary, amounting to so much finger-wagging.

Still, Death of a President is viscerally effective, and compelling in the details. The controversy surrounding it will probably be enough to get some people into the theaters, though to the extent the film is anti-Bush and anti-war it may, like many genuine documentaries before it, end up preaching to the choir. It’s worth watching with grain of salt in tow. You may learn more about yourself than about the President or the war.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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Jonathan Levine, 2013

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Richard LaGravanese, 2013

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Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

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Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

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Im Sang-Soo, 2013

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