Bush 'Assassination' Film Makes Waves Across the Pond

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 2, 2006

LONDON, Sept. 1 -- Nearly every British newspaper on Friday carried photos of the "assassination" of President Bush -- or, rather, the eerily realistic depiction of it from a new documentary-style television film that is causing an uproar in Britain.

The film, "Death of a President," has been alternatively derided as a tasteless publicity grab and defended as a serious look at a plausible event that could have dramatic ramifications for the world.

"It's a disturbing film," said Peter Dale, head of More4, the television channel that will telecast the film in England in October. It is scheduled to debut this month -- on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks -- at the Toronto Film Festival.

"It raises questions about the effects of American foreign policy and particularly the war on terror," said Dale, who denied criticism that the film made an anti-Bush or anti-American political statement. "It's a fairly attention-grabbing premise, but behind that is a serious and thought-provoking film."

In the film, Bush is assassinated by a sniper after making a speech in Chicago in October 2007. The investigation immediately centers on a Syrian-born gunman, and a shocked nation confronts the war on terror in the post-Bush era.

Dale said the assassination scene, which comes about 10 minutes into the 90-minute film, is a glimpse rather than "a gratuitously lengthy gazing kind of scene." He said it was "very small in comparison to the blood and death we see daily in the news" from Iraq.

"We know some people are going to be offended," Dale said. "But you always risk offending people when you open people's eyes to the way the world is. Sometimes the truth is a bit unpalatable."

At the White House, spokesman Emily Lawrimore said of the film: "We are not commenting because it doesn't dignify a response."

Some critics in London scoffed at arguments that the movie was a serious piece of filmmaking. Several said More4, which began broadcasting just 11 months ago, was more interested in ratings than in exploring vital matters of public interest.

"It's about hype rather than a serious matter," said Roy Greenslade, a noted British media critic, who said the film "crossed the line" and was "obviously tasteless."

Britons awoke this morning to see their morning newspapers carrying a black-and-white promotional photo, with a sort of Dallas-in-1963 feel, showing a mortally wounded Bush dying in a Secret Service agent's arms. Other agents draw guns, cameras flash and people dive for cover in the photo of a filmed scene in which Bush's head was added later to an actor's body by computer.

Greenslade said the photos are so realistic that for a second he thought Bush had actually been assassinated. He said creating such a realistic image of Bush being killed "could convince crazy people that this might be a good idea."

"I'm sure they will cloak it by saying there's a serious point to be made," Greenslade noted. "But isn't there another way? If it had been a fictional president, wouldn't it have made the same point? It just beggars belief that this is the best way to make a serious point."

Dale defended the use of Bush himself, rather than a fictional president, because using a fictional character "wouldn't have the same kind of resonance."

"It's absolutely legitimate to deal with contemporary named figures," he said. "I would urge people to see the film and see if they think it is fair."

More4, which launched in October, is one of three satellite channels affiliated with Channel 4, a major independent television channel in Britain. The other two affiliates are a children's channel and a movie channel. Dale said More4 carries "serious, upmarket" programming aimed at adults.

The channel has made a name for itself with controversial films, such as last year's "A Very Social Secretary," a biting satire about former cabinet minister David Blunkett's affair with a British magazine editor.

Prime Minister Tony Blair will get a roasting of his own in November, when the channel plans to air the comedy "The Trial of Tony Blair." Dale said the film was a satire depicting Blair's life after he leaves office, including an arrest on charges of waging an illegal war in Iraq.

The Bush film is directed by Gabriel Range, who used similar documentary-style techniques in his 2003 film, "The Day Britain Stopped." That movie, about a massive breakdown of Britain's transportation networks that created national chaos, aired on BBC Two television.

Rod Liddle, a newspaper and magazine columnist who also makes documentaries for Channel 4, said he thought the Bush film gave voice to a common sentiment in Britain.

"You will never, ever be able to overestimate the degree to which the British people loathe George Bush," Liddle said. "It will be a free round of drinks in every pub for the person who plays the assassin."

Liddle said there was nothing wrong about making a documentary about the assassination of a U.S. president, even if it was difficult for some people to watch.

"I don't find it particularly objectionable, but then I'm not George Bush's family," he said. "It seems to me to be a reasonable premise, even if it is uncomfortable."

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