'Death of a President': Realism With a False Face

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

"The whole world is watching."

Those words, chanted by demonstrators at the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, are never uttered in "Death of a President," but they echo nonetheless. An unsettling and exceptionally skillful exercise in blurring the lines between appearance and reality, this fictional, documentary-style film uses the incendiary premise of the assassination of President George W. Bush in the not-too-distant future as a springboard for thinking about the practical and psychic toll of how America deals with terrorist threats.

Produced by Britain's Channel 4 television network and co-written and directed by Gabriel Range, "Death of a President," or "DOAP" as it has come to be called by its publicists, has garnered understandable notoriety after making its debut at the Toronto Film Festival and being picked up by the same studio that distributed "The Passion of the Christ." Two theater chains have refused to show the movie, which uses real-life news footage and flawless computerized special effects to create a chilling approximation of an assassination, and a few television and radio networks have decided not to air advertisements.

The hubbub must please the filmmakers, who surely chose their putative subject for its potential, in marketing argot, to garner invaluable unearned media. The question is whether "DOAP" has earned its own inflammatory conceit. Is it politically provocative agitprop or merely a cynical, exploitative stunt?

Probably the latter, but one that has been performed with unusual dexterity. Structured like an installment of "Frontline," "DOAP" often has the taut urgency of that PBS series, with witnesses providing a detailed tick-tock of events as they unfolded. Indeed, "DOAP" is so convincing that, like most he-said, he-said documentaries, it eventually suffers from a fatal, talking-head inertness.

Still, "DOAP" gets off to a riveting start, with presidential aides and FBI agents (portrayed with terrific verisimilitude by the actors who play them) "recalling" the day in 2007 when Bush, in Chicago for a speech to a business group, encounters the biggest and most unruly demonstration of his administration. Range intercuts archival footage of past demonstrations -- picture the fury of Bush's first inauguration combined with that of the 1999 anti-globalization march in Seattle -- with staged interviews to create an atmosphere that crackles with dread; when Bush finally enters the scrum of the fatal rope line (his face is digitally superimposed on an actor's), the mood turns sickening. (As is the occupational hazard of anyone working with of-the-moment material, events have in some ways outstripped the film's attempts at realism, from recent doings in North Korea to the drama co-starring Dennis Hastert.)

Those who would condemn "DOAP" without seeing it should be made aware of one crucial fact: Range does not depict that event with glee or even a smirk. The shooting of Bush is indeed portrayed with solemnity and grief (although some red-meat Dems will no doubt mentally insert screeching "Psycho" violins when someone first refers to "President Cheney"). The ballast of "DOAP," after the horrific event itself unfolds, becomes a true-crime procedural dedicated to the search for the assassin. It's at this point that Range reveals his true agenda: Although a few suspects come under scrutiny, only one is finally railroaded into a kangaroo conviction, the result of a beefed-up Patriot Act, political expedience and a populace agog with paranoia and fear.

With its seamless use of actual and staged footage, "DOAP" at its best will remind some viewers of "Medium Cool," Haskell Wexler's brilliant neo-realist thriller that was filmed during the 1968 convention and released the next year. "DOAP" possesses the same sense of immediacy and political moment, and when Range focuses on the anti-Bush demonstrators, their faces contorted into masks of fury and contempt, he taps a vein of present-day rage that in some quarters seems to be on the verge of bursting again.

And in playing into the historical fascination with assassination, it resembles a kind of 21st-century "JFK," tweaked to hit the hot-button issues of the day. (The most obvious comparison is with the politically charged pseudo-docs of avant-garde filmmaker Mike Z, whose work has been shown at the DC Underground Film Festival. His Internet hoaxes are so good that he's been investigated by real FBI agents.)

But it's not as if those issues -- the tensions between civil liberties and security in a post-9/11 world -- aren't being addressed in pop culture, whether in such television series as "24" and "Sleeper Cell" or even the recent film "The Departed." How American democracy will engage those issues in months and years to come will in a very real sense define this country. And a rigorous, sober, intellectually honest discussion, not a partisan food fight or piece of cinematic showmanship, is what is called for.

Range doesn't advance that discussion as much as use it as a fig leaf for his own self-serving interests. He's artistically akin to the man who shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theater, and then wonders why no one sticks around to hear his argument for brighter exit signs.

At such a pivotal juncture, we deserve better. We need better. Nearly 40 years on, the world is still watching.

Death of a President (93 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for brief violent images.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company