Death of a President (2006): Gabriel Range’s Conspiracy Thriller, Blending Fictional and Documentary Elements

One of the “hottest” film at this years Toronto Film Fest, Gabriel Range’s Death of a President is a political thriller that shrewdly but unconvincingly blends fictional and non-fictional events, while raising some timely questions about the American foreign policy in the Middle East, racial profiling, and other relevant issues.

The film stirred controversy even before it was shown at the festival. Having won the Fipresci (International Federation of Film Critics) Award only elevates the profile of the British-made film, which was picked up by NewMarket Films for theatrical distribution.

Part mock documentary exploring the before and after of the assassination of George W. Bush, part conspiracy thriller (that recalls vantage films of the 1970s), part exploration of Islamic fanaticism and racial/national stereotypes, the film is flawed, perhaps a reflection of Range’s lack of experience as a director. However, with some luck and op-ed pages, Death of a President (that has acquired the short label DOAP…) should create waves and perhaps even find appreciative audiences.

As of September, theres no specific release date, but the sooner the film is shown, the better its chances to be seen and be talked about; this is after all an election year, and Bush has been under increasing fire due to the escalating Iraq War.

Who will see the film From NewMarkets POV, best-case scenario is that it will be embraced by those who flocked to Michael Moores incendiary docu, Fahrenheit 9/11, still the strongest anti-Bush statement in American film. The title, both specific and allegorical (a take on Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”), should also serve as a strong marketing hook.

Let me start by saying that the most audacious thing about the film is its very premise–the assassination of yet another American president, and one that’s very much alive. I think this very notion touches on both conscious and subconscious levels of awareness, considering the political assassination of John F. Kennedy and brother Robert, as well as Martin Luther King.

However, examining the film from a more critical and detached perspective is another story. Considering the film’s hype and news stories by people who have not seen it, theres no way Death of a President can live up to expectations. Once you see the film, you realize that it’s not that controversial and that the main problem is that it’s not compelling on its own terms.

The real test for Range, who’s arguably shrewd and gifted, will be his next feature, one that’s less of a stunt and doesn’t automatically benefit from its incendiary subject.

Billed as a “retrospective documentary” by director Range, the fictional feature describes the tragedy caused by the assassination of President Bush on October 19, 2007. While the promotional image, a photo that looks like the scene of Bush’s death, stirred worldwide controversy, the portrayal of the shooting in the movie itself lasts only a few seconds of footage; Bush is seen from behind, doubling over after two gun shots.

The plot begins on the day of Bushs assassination, then follows through the investigation of the crime scene with several suspects who turn out to be innocent, the ascension of President Dick Cheney, and the ultimate discovery of the true assassin, an African American vet of the first Gulf War (declared by Bush pere), whos distraught by his son’s death in a roadside bomb in Iraq.

The docu’s opening and closing words are spoken in Arabic by a woman who turns out to be the wife of the Syrian wrongly convicted for the murder. She later explains that she feared the repercussions for all Muslims living in the U.S.

The story picks up with Bush arriving in Chicago to give a speech to business leaders on economic growth. Outside the Sheraton Hotel where Bush gives his talk, thousands of angry protesters gather and law enforcement is concerned for his safety.

One of the initial suspects is a protest leader, who says that Bush had caused over 100,000 deaths, and that had Bush been tried in a war crime tribunal, he would have been a prime candidate.

White House policy only gets worse when the 44th President of the U.S., Dick Cheney, is sworn in and briefly tries to get Congress to invade Syria after a Syrian worker emerges as the leading suspect. But Cheney has to settle for a further expanded Patriot Act, which is used to convict and send to death row the Syrian man.

An American vet tries to convince the world that his father committed suicide after Bush’s death, following the death of his other son in Iraq. The note he leaves behind reads, “Everything I’ve raised you to stand for has turned bad. There’s no honor in standing for an immoral country.”

But the report is dismissed and the Syrian immigrant is convicted. Even after documenting that he was the actual assassin, the Syrian remains in prison on charges of ties to Al Qaeda.

Range uses the conventions of the investigative documentary form, such as interviews and news footage, except that most of the data is recreated and manufactured. The actors from the interviews are digitally inserted into actual footage of Bush during a visit to Chicago. The Syrian foreign ministers denial of Syrian involvement in the 2004 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is taken out of context and used for plot purposes.

Range posits a convincing aftermath where new president Cheney uses the fact that the alleged assassin is a Syrian immigrant as a pretext for invading Syria. Meanwhile, a reinvigorated US Department of Homeland Security is given more latitude in its use of surveillance of citizens, thus increasing the already prevalent culture of paranoia. In the course of the story, a Secret Service agent confesses to have flubbed the assignment of protecting the leader of the worlds most powerful nation.

At this juncture, Range is not a particularly good filmmaker or deep thinker, and his ersatz (rather shallow) feature leaves much to be desired cinematically. The fake news footage is sharply uneven. While some segments are compelling, others are too far out in their speculation and not particularly well executed either. It would have been more authentic if Range included recreations of events, a practice prevalent in other docus.

The interviews also represent a mixed bag. Some are contrived, like the forensic expert who would resign over claims of interference, while others dont relate directly to the central yarn. Range inserts excerpts from a lengthy interview with Bushs perky and awestruck speech-writer that simply diverts attention from the main intrigue, because she’s given too much screen time 9and comes across as not too bright).

End note

Before the screening, rumors circulated about the film representing a kind of wishful thinking, sort of, wouldnt you like your President to be dead Gabriel Grange said after the premiere that he was inspired to by his experiences living in New York shortly after the World Trade Center attacks. “I was struck by the very profound ways the country seemed to be changing.”

The inevitable question to be asked is how plausible is the text for a compelling political thriller Though, ultimately, the answer to this question may depend on what individual viewers bring to the screentheir political values and interests, and whether they seek change.