One thing you can say about capitalism: It's equal-opportunity in its desire to turn a profit. In 2004, Newmarket films, an indie film distributor that traded in such modest art-house successes as Memento and Whale Rider, picked up Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ when no one would come near it. Some $370 million later, Newmarket became the company to watch. When Gabriel Range's Death of a President came along, there's little doubt the distributor smelled another highly publicized controversy and hoped the box office would follow. And you know you're off to a good start when your film is banned by two major theater chains, berated on talk radio and condemned sight unseen by Hillary Clinton, who said, "That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick."
Though conservatives claim that market forces should be trusted to provide for the poor, heal the sick and educate the ignorant, apparently the idea that audiences can decide for themselves whether a film crosses the line of decency and taste is unfathomable. Concerned theater chains such as Regal Entertainment Group and Cinemark are committed to protecting us from degenerate filmmakers like Gabriel Range by refusing to screen his work. (Of course, one wonders how many of their cashiers and ushers have access to health insurance.)
Range's faux documentary traces the 2007 assassination of George W. Bush. Using doctored news footage, CGI effects, talking-head interviews and dramatically staged scenes, this What If account convincingly mimics the style and conventions of most investigative documentaries. Ultimately, however, it fails to tell a compelling or insightful story. Simply put, Death of a President isn't as clever as it thinks it is.
Through manufactured images and interviews we follow Bush as he spends his last day in Chicago, addressing business leaders at an economic meeting while thousands of war protesters gather outside his hotel. As Secret Service agents fret over his safety and staff members rhapsodize about their wonderful boss, the film offers up a rogues gallery of potential assassins: the militant peace activist, the disgruntled vet and the dark-skinned foreigner. This buildup to Bush's death consumes nearly half the film and is delivered with all the cautious sobriety of an A&E documentary. There's no irony, no introspection, only carefully laid tracks for Range's gimmick to chug along.
The aftermath of the assassination is only a little less dramatically inert. Congress expands the Patriot Act as "national security" once again trumps the Bill of Rights, President Cheney insists on a Syrian connection, and a hapless Muslim immigrant is arrested. Between lamentations from fake staffers (they probably shouldn't have cast the mom from Freaks and Geeks) and complaints from early suspects, investigators wring their hands over the political need to find an appropriate perpetrator even if it's a lie. It's all plausible but not very imaginative. Anyone with a healthy mistrust of the Bush administration could concoct the very same scenarios. Range's "daring" glimpse into the future ends up saying very little of substance. It seems to exist for its premise alone.
Worse, Death of a President barely qualifies as political. Little is made of Cheney's ascension to the Oval Office and the administration's current policies are reduced to generalized critiques of the war in Iraq and knee-jerk phobias of Islam. Ironically, audiences who loathe our current commander in chief may find themselves having second thoughts about their vicarious wish fulfillment. Bush's demise is depicted with so much respect and restraint it almost becomes an act of martyrdom. Even the most committed haters will find his death unsatisfying. As with most controversial films, once you actually see it, you realize a whole lot of hay has been made out of nothing.
Still, Range's approach is valid. Those who claim his mockumentary is little more than a snuff film demonstrate a willful ignorance of art and film history. Fictional investigations of real-life people and events permeate film and literature. Death of a President is no more tasteless than Oliver Stone's JFK though that didn't stop Kevin Costner from blasting Range's film (again, sight unseen). There is an esteemed history of cinéma vérité docudrama, including 1984's disturbing cautionary film Threads, the incredible work of Peter Watkins (The War Game, Gladiatorerna, Punishment Park) and even Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool prove that a blend of fictional and nonfictional events can provide for subversive and thought-provoking work. The only question worth asking about Death of a President's audacious sleight of hand is: Is it worth your time and money? Conservatives should have more faith that the market will provide the answer.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].