Death of a President Review
Of the eight US Presidents to have died whilst in office, four have met their end at the point of an assassin's gun. Of those four, two have entered American folklore - those of Lincoln and Kennedy, obviously - while two have been largely forgotten by the general public, despite the fact that one of those so felled, William McKinley, was arguably one of the two most important Presidents of the period between the Civil and First World Wars (the other, James Garfield, is less surprising, as he was in office for less than a year.) Assassination attempts seem to go in cycles: the first three all happened within a forty year period (1865-1901) while Kennedy’s death in 1963 was just the start of a whole wave of political killings in that decade, the last being of course his own brother Bobby in 1968. There were a few minor attempts in the Seventies, but since John Hinckley came within a whisker of ending Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981 there's not been a serious attempt, discounting 9/11, which has close to the Commander-in-Chief. Given the polarising effect that George W Bush has had on his country over the past seven years this is somewhat remarkable (as well as a testament to the skill of his security detail!) but, as Gabriel Range’s film reminds us towards the end, even if the current President was killed that wouldn’t be the end for the neoconservative administration, for Dick Cheney would automatically become the forty-fourth president and he would not be in a forgiving mood. (This also highlights a little noted historical fact that often the President’s replacement turns out to be far worse - see in particular Lincoln and Garfield’s successors Andrew Johnson and Chester A Arthur respectively).
It’s just one of the many obvious points this film makes. When first released last year it felt as though Film4 was broadcasting the thing every five minutes so for most of you reading this you’re probably more than familiar with its content. However, for the few who missed it, Death of a President is a pseudo-documentary, taking and altering actual footage of Bush, Cheney and various others and combining it with faked news reports, CCTV pictures, police camera work, mobile phone footage and other realistic sources, as well as using a bunch of talking-heads actors, to make a highly convincing portrayal of a fictional event. The film follows the story of Bush’s assassination, gunned down outside the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago, and the subsequent consequences of that action. The authorities soon have a prime suspect in custody, a Syrian with apparent links to Al-Qaeda, and as the nation mourns the newly-appointed President Cheney introduces a draconian new security act, Patriot 3, which allows the FBI, CIA and others increased powers to investigate and detain anyone they feel like. But all is not as it seems, and even as the accused is found guilty a mere seven months after the shooting, the investigators begin to have qualms about whether, even despite the new powers at their disposal, they have caught the right man.
Stylistically this is superb: from the early scenes of protesters in downtown Chicago breaking through the police cordons and attacking the Presidential motorcade, through to the actual shooting of Bush itself, and on to the subsequent trials of the accused and the final denouncement, this is a technically accomplished film which hardly puts a step wrong and paints an extremely credible picture. The combination of different film sources adds to the realism, with some wittily appropriate commandeering of existing footage (for example, Cheney’s eulogy at Ronald Reagan’s funeral becomes his memorial at Bush’s instead), while the seamless blending of specially shot material with that already available is virtually flawless. With only one exception the actors, playing everything from FBI agents to forensic scientists to the wife of the accused man give sincere, earnest performances which mimic exactly the sort of thing you see in real documentaries of the type (the one exception being Becky Ann Baker as one of Bush’s speechwriters: she’s too homely to convince as a member of the inner circle). Narratively, it tells a convincing and interesting story. Given the inherent constraints of a documentary style, it’s remarkable how vividly the film paints its characters, from the secret service agent who has become eaten up with guilt regarding his failure to protect the president, through to the member of the forensics team who resigns when he believes an injustice is being committed and so on. The story develops in a coherent, logical fashion, even building to a whodunit climax of sorts, with a pleasing sting in the tail. Surprisingly gripping in places, it brings across well the shock and then anger of a nation, and portrays all sides fairly. As a story, it works and makes for a supremely entertaining, absorbing ninety minutes.
However, it is also a supremely pointless exercise. On one level it is, of course, pastiche, its grave tone and expose-style revelations mimicking exactly the tone of similar broadcasts. As a satire, it has some good jokes, but none which we haven’t seen a hundred times before - the media pack’s instant condemnation of the first suspect who comes along, for example, has been a subject much scrutinised already over the past couple of years - while its political commentary is recycled from other polemicists. This is the main flaw in the piece: it has nothing new to add to the criticism of the current US Administration Its main points have been gone over time and time again, and have now become clichés of neoconservative condemnation (albeit, largely true clichés). When Cheney hears that the assassin is potentially a Syrian, he’s all for trying to find a link to the government there and thus having an excuse to go in all guns blazing. The prisoner is treated as guilty from the start. When fresh evidence comes to light that the killer might instead have been home-grown, and that the convicted man sitting on Death Row has nothing to do with it, no one wants to know, leaving the prisoner languishing in a judicial nightmare. Using Bush’s death as a 9/11 metaphor with the consequence of Iraq, the film is content with saying the same thing most liberal commentators have been saying for the past four years - the war has ruined lives, the faith of even the most patriotic, God-fearin’, flag-worshipping American patriots has been dented and betrayed by this manipulative, self-interested executive, there is a deep sense of anger at large in the country etc etc. At the end one is left with a profound sense of “Yes? So what? This has been a rotten few years - we knew all that.”
It's a movie that appeared a year too late. By the time of its release, there was a new, almost revolutionary mood in the US, one which wants to get beyond the failings of the Bush era, sweep it out of the way and start sorting out the mess. Much of the despair of the last few years has been at the opposition's impotence, that we could watch these mistakes being made and not do a thing about it, but in November the mid-term elections saw the population finally striking back. Bush is a man in power but no longer in control. Shortly after the film was released, the Democrats gained power in Congress, effectively ending the President’s carte blanche to do as he wished, but even before that, all through 2006 there was a real mood of change in the air, one which was saying enough is enough. Three years ago Bush and Cheney (and Rumsfeld) were a menace, now they are increasingly becoming an irrelevance. One of the reasons we are currently watching "the longest Presidential election campaign in US history" is because of this eagerness to move on. Thus we end up with a film which is a curious museum piece, a reflection of the anger felt by America not today, but two or three years ago - exactly the time that Range and Finch would have started to plan their film. Unfortunately history moved too fast for them.
so instead it's best to watch the film as a historical document. If one ignores its release date then it will certainly improve with age - it portrays the very real feelings of anger that were, and to be fair still are, about. But as a film to make a statement it fails, for its adds nothing to the discussion already on the table. Range and Finch’s motives were sincere - they wanted to present a picture of how the world views the Bush administration and the climate of fear they have stoked up in the US - and their film is both technically proficient and a good story in its own right. But it’s also obvious, finding nothing profound or revelatory to say about the Neocon position, ultimately repeating the same tract that others have gone over many times before. It’s easy to see why it won the critic’s prize at the Toronto film festival - not only was it preaching to the converted but it does so in a highly attractive, well done manner. But ultimately, it comes down to a case of more style and less substance than it might appear. Storywise it’s great, but satirically it's only second hand. An amusing hour and a half if viewed purely as a pastiche - and it is a very good pastiche - its deeper aims miss their intended target simply because it was too full of similar arrows already.
The film is presented on a single dual-layered disc. The Main Menu is suitably subdued, with a low-key part of Richard Harvey’s score playing over a clip of Bush meet-and-greeting just before the shooting. The four options are Play Film, Scene Selection (16 chapters), Extra Features and Audio Set-Up, which also includes the option to listen to the Commentary.
Because the film’s style mixes up so many different film sources, from the grainy low definition of a mobile phone and CCTV footage upwards, there’s little point in making a detailed critique of the Video other than to say that there are few encoding problems and the picture is as crisp as it should be. Regarding the Audio, there’s a choice of either stereo or full 5.1 tracks, which might seem surprising given the film’s nature, but actually the subtle sound editing is one of the many technical accomplishments in the film that deserves attention - watch out, for example, for the edited cries of real street protestors as the news of Bush’s death spreads.
There are no subtitles, which instantly loses the disc a point.
Only two real extras, but both of sufficient quality to merit attention. The first is the Feature-length commentary featuring Gabriel Range, Simon Finch, the film’s editor Brand Thumim and producer Donald McCusker. Range leads from the front and is the prevalent voice here, with the others chiming in when relevant, and the commentary as a whole is a mixture of observation about the material and some backslapping of the “our actors did a great job” variety. One gets the impression that maybe a separate track for Range and Finch alone, discussing the content of their film as opposed to its making, would have made a nice complement here. An interview with the Makers of Death of a President is an informative, intelligent featurette (18:28) in which Range, Finch and Thumim discuss the technical challenges of putting the movie together, and its aims, answering some of the admittedly daft criticisms the film garnered Stateside on its release. The only other feature to be found on the disc is the obligatory Trailer (0:57) which naturally plays up the more sensational angle of the movie.
Death of a President gets as good a presentation as one could hope for, given its status, and the film makers come across particularly well in the two main extras.