Being from Great Britain, director/co-writer Gabriel Range presumably believed he could make the brazenly provocative film Death of a President without risk of being tried for treason. Range presents a fictional documentary from an unspecified future that recounts the events leading up to and following the assassination of George W. Bush in 2007.
Outraged politicians and pundits -- and not just conservative ones -- already have condemned Death of a President, although Range's film should not be mistaken as simply an approving "how-to" video. Range uses the imaginary killing and its fallout as a none-too-subtle piece of straight-faced satire, critiquing the Bush administration's present-day policies, particularly the Iraq War and the PATRIOT Act.
The film's first half, with its combination of exploitative material and creative, low-budget storytelling, makes compelling viewing as it follows the president to his fate outside a Chicago hotel. Range mixes archival video from the president's actual public appearances with made-up re-creations to make queasily convincing sequences. What appears to be Ronald Reagan's funeral substitutes for Bush's own, with "President Cheney" eulogizing the 43rd president.
Looking more polished than the interviewees from real documentaries, actors portray witnesses, investigators and suspects in the ensuing manhunt. Death of a President convincingly examines some of the flaws in forensic evidence and the political pressures that influence high-profile investigations, but the mockumentary format doesn't suit Range's attempts at twisty plotting.
Death of a President's thematic points turn out to be too modest to justify the tastelessness of the enterprise. Range portrays the fictional assassination as a kind of replay of the World Trade Center attacks, a national trauma that leads to curtailing of civil liberties and heightened international tensions. Sounds plausible, but the film spends more time arguing, for instance, that anti-war activists have the right to assemble than carrying its future history into challenging directions. How would America and the rest of the world look after a second 9/11? Death of a President ultimately combines the techniques of documentary film and speculative fiction in the service of knee-jerk sensationalism.
Death of a President ** Directed by Gabriel Range. Stars Becky Ann Baker, James Urbaniak. Not rated. Opens Fri., Oct. 27. At the Plaza Theatre.