"Death of a President": Effects enhance, distract in daring film
Seattle Times movie critic
Gabriel Range's "Death of a President" comes with its own built-in non-audience: Many of us, for a variety of reasons, may not wish to see it. Some have political objections to the film's documentary-like portrayal of the assassination of President George W. Bush in October 2007 (though it's presented straightforwardly as a national tragedy) and the event's ties to the Iraq war; some who remember the real-life assassination of a president may prefer not to revisit those memories; some may simply find the whole idea thoroughly tasteless.
But for those sufficiently intrigued to venture to the theater, the reward is a gimmicky but sometimes haunting film. Range presents it as a television documentary made a year or so after the fact (meaning, in 2008). Various talking heads, representing people closely connected to the assassination, weigh in with their memories. Eleanor Drake (Becky Ann Baker), a presidential adviser and speechwriter, fondly recalls her boss. A Secret Service agent (Brian Boland) remembers having "a bad feeling" about the meet-the-public event that night at a Chicago hotel. And a Muslim woman (Hend Ayoub), whose connection to the crime is at first ambiguous, speaks with anguish. When she heard the news, she says, "I thought, 'Please, God, don't let [the killer] be a Muslim.' "
Meanwhile, a startling collection of footage depicts the mood of the night, and the crime. Angry anti-war protesters surge around the hotel, chanting and waving signs. Bush gives a speech, shakes hands outside the hotel and slips into a limousine — a shot rings out. The footage and camerawork (a combination of doctored archival footage and staged re-enactment) become chaotic; screams merge with the squealing of the limo's wheels as it races away. Later, at the hospital, a doctor makes a nervous statement of tentative hope, while a television announcer says that more than 300 people are already in custody and under suspicion. The dark, grainy footage all feels entirely real, and regardless of politics, it's upsetting to watch.
The rest of the film, which depicts the seizure and trial of the gunman (with a somewhat predictable twist), is less intense and therefore less compelling. And the film's political statements get a little lost in what becomes, for the final third of the film, a murder mystery. Behind the charged plotline of the film, Range and co-screenwriter Simon Finch (both British) are commenting on the changes in the U.S. since the invasion of Iraq: how many Americans perceive that dissent has been squelched, how intense anger about the war can translate into an equally intense hatred of the president who entered into it, how these tensions create a simmering cauldron.
In creating their meticulous fiction, though, the filmmakers inadvertently let their message take a back seat to the computer wizardry. "Death of a President" is thought-provoking, but as much for "how'd they do that?" as for its ideas.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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