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Death of a President

Less Controversial Than It First Appears

Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy. All four men, former presidents of the United States, were assassinated while in office. Another president, Ronald Reagan almost died in office. And now President George W. Bush? Bush may have the dubious honor of being the first sitting president assassinated in a fictional film, Death of a President. Directed and co-written by British journalist Gabriel Range (The Man Who Broke Britain), Death of a President is a faux investigative documentary set several years after Bush’s death that promises far more than it delivers.

On October 19, 2007, the president arrives in Chicago to give a speech about the faltering economy. He also plans to include warnings to North Korea about their nuclear missile program. As the president gives his speech and mingles with his supporters inside and outside the hotel, a mass protest against the continuing occupation of Iraq by the United States threatens to get out of control. Video surveillance cameras capture several men who break through the police cordon. The president is shot as he emerges from the hotel. He dies on the operating table hours later. The nation mourns the fallen president and the newly sworn in president, Dick Cheney, gives a stirring eulogy at his funeral.

The investigation leads to several suspects, including Frank Molini (Jay Whittaker), an environmental activist, Casey Claybon (M. Neko Parham), an African-American Iraqi war veteran, and Jamal Abu Zikri (Malik Bader), a Pakistani Muslim immigrant. Others, including Zikri’s wife, Zahra (Hend Ayoub), and Samir Masri (Seena Jon), another Arab Muslim, are also interviewed. Even as the investigators gather and evaluate forensic evidence and alibis, President Cheney suspects Middle Eastern involvement in the assassination. One man is ultimately arrested, tried, and convicted, but questions remain about the actual perpetrator or perpetrators behind the assassination.

Death of a President also depicts the negative consequences that would follow the assassination of the a sitting U.S. president. Here, the Cheney Administration jumps at the opportunity to take advantage of the public mood and a cowed, pliant Congress to engage real and perceived enemies here and elsewhere. With the cooperation of Congress, the Cheney Administration widens the executive branch’s powers under the latest iteration of the USA Patriot Act: the executive branch is given greater power to detain political opponents (i.e., “enemy combatants”) without trials or time limits. Death of a President begins as a wish fulfillment, but ends up as a stark cautionary tale for moviegoers on the left side of the political spectrum.

But Death of a President is not controversial or as audacious as the premise suggests. By taking the faux documentary approach, complete with talking heads and archival footage, plus the future tense, Range de-dramatizes the pre-assassination events. A bolder approach would have set aside the documentary conventions for those of the docudrama, setting the docudrama in the present and following the key players (e.g., secret service agents, protesters, etc.) through the assassination of the sitting U.S. president, with the post-events set up for the third act or even the epilogue. Instead, the final result feels obvious, forced, and not very emotionally rewarding or intellectually challenging, at least not for the politically informed or astute. That opinion, however, might be in the minority. Death of a President won the International Critics Prize at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars