Death of a President
Written, produced & directed by Gabriel Range
In cinemas from March 1
No he's not dead. It's a film. Sorry. But Death of a President is a very believable mock documentary in which an unknown sniper assassinates George Bush. Real archival footage of Bush, Dick Cheney and anti-war protests are seamlessly interspersed with mock interviews to produce a compelling exploration of post-9/11 government manipulation, racism and repression.
Without giving the ending away here's what happens. Bush lands in Chicago to deliver a speech to the local corporate elite at a ritzy downtown hotel. Outside, a large anti-war demonstration lines Bush's route. Leaving the hotel, Bush is shot. Cheney becomes president. The FBI investigation begins and a series of suspects appear: an anti-war protester, a Syrian immigrant and a Gulf War veteran. But no conclusive proof appears to settle this grand "whodunit".
But before proceeding let's get some facts straight. The film does not condone violence — let alone assassination — of Bush or anyone. In fact, you don't even see the actual assassination.
In an interview in the January 2007 edition of New York Cool magazine, the film's director, writer and producer Gabriel Range explained: "There's been a strong reaction to the film. Some people thought it would be cheering on the assassination when in fact the film is quite different. Some people even thought that the audience would cheer when Bush was shot, but they did not. Anyone who was expecting a cathartic effect when Bush was shot will be in for a terrible surprise. This is a film about the pernicious effects of violence."
Not that this stopped figures from the US capitalist class condemning the film and calling for it to be banned. Before it had even premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September the US corporate mouthpieces' reviews were in.
"I think it's despicable", said Hillary Clinton in the September 20 edition of The Phoenix. "I think it's absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick."
Spokesperson for the Republican Party in Texas Gretchen Essell told the British Press Association, "I cannot support a video that would dramatise the assassination of our president, real or imagined ... I find this shocking, I find it disturbing."
The most predictable review of all is from the White House. "We are not commenting because it doesn't dignify a response", said White House spokesperson Emily Lawrimore, quoted in the February 16 edition of the New York Sun.
The problem that the film presents for the US ruling class is the way it powerfully exposes the cynical agenda of the "war on terror".
Range explains: "I decided at the end of 2004 to use the assassination of the President as a tumultuous event to make my film. I used the assassination as a device to tell a story about the current political climate what has happened in the last five years.
"I was inspired by the situation after 9/11 and how so many Arab Americans were picked up off the streets only because they were Arab Americans and how they were subsequently deported. The current [US] administration has shown no respect for what it considers to be legal niceties."
Immediately after Bush's assassination, "Patriot Act III" is passed, giving the FBI and Homeland Security even more unspecified surveillance and arrest powers. These are used against Arabs and protesters. Police study records of people who work in an adjacent office building, concentrating first on those with Arab-sounding names. They fixate upon a Syrian, Jamal Abu Zikri. In the middle of the night, police raid his apartment and detain and interrogate him. As the days pass, the FBI is intent on connecting him with al Qaeda. They seize upon unreliable forensic evidence and pressure investigators to pin the crime on Zikri despite the lack of supporting evidence.
Range also examines the US war-drive. This aspect of the film is a little more clumsy than Range's treatment of the racist crackdown on civil liberties. The war plans for Syria are obviously supposed to be an allegory for the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. But being set in October 2007, the ease with which the US readies for war on Syria (despite continuing to be routed in Iraq) is less believable than the rest of the film.
Range's choice of the "mockumentary" form for his film has shortcomings, especially when a whole range of social commentary is crammed into 94 minutes.
Take the depiction of the protesters outside the hotel in the opening scenes for example.
"I wanted to convey the sense of frustration felt by the police officers who were charged with controlling the crowds", Range explains. But to do this quickly, the protest is depicted as a dangerous cover for loonies and the assassin, infiltrated by underground anarchists savagely intent on violence. Range even has Bush in his limousine say to his Special Adviser "I don't mind them having their opinions, I just wish they'd demonstrate peacefully." It just doesn't match the real Bush. Drama trumps believability in this aspect.
Little mention is made of Iraq (except for one of the suspects being a Gulf War veteran). No attempt is made to explain that the main victims of the "war on terror" are those living under occupation.
Overall though, the film is extremely believable. You really have to pinch yourself. The interspersion of archive footage is very clever. Computer generated imaging is also used very cleverly — perhaps too cleverly as you can get distracted trying to distinguish CGI from archive footage.
The film is not an analysis of how the US government rules on behalf of the capitalist class. That's not what Range was trying to produce. It's a political thriller with a subtle, cleverly developed social commentary. And despite its shortcomings, opponents of the war and defenders of civil liberties will likely thoroughly enjoy this unique film.
[Green Left Weekly has five free passes to give to the first five Green Left subscribers (or those who take out a subscription at the time of calling). Phone us on 1800 634 206 or 02 9690 1240 after 9am on February 28.]