There’s no way in which anyone could watch this film and think that assassinating President Bush was a good idea.
—Gabriel Range, Movie Times
Death of a President generated some small controversy before its opening last weekend. When CNN and NPR declined to run ads for it, primary objections were premised on its subject matter: the movie imagines the assassination of President Bush on 19 October 2007. The controversy elicited predictable responses (Hillary Clinton called it “despicable,” the White House had no comment), but produced little in the way of first weekend box office (it averaged just $1970 per screen).
But Death of a President‘s narrative is less noteworthy than its method. On one level, it’s an obvious and sometimes clunky fake documentary, a deft compilation of real-life/famous and fictional characters, scripted scenes and archival (news-ish) footage. On another level, however, by mooshing together what seems real, what could be true, and what’s plainly not, the movie raises questions about how “non-fiction” works, generating beliefs and telling stories.
Seated before bookshelves or windows, talking heads recall the fateful day in Chicago when Bush was shot. Nearly tearful Secret Service Agent Larry Stafford (Brian Boland) wishes he’d done things differently, Karen-Hughesy Special Advisor Ellie Drake (Becky Ann Baker) remembers Laura Bush’s admirable strength in the face of crisis. A couple of interviewees, like Washington Post writer Sam McCarthy (Jay Patterson), suggest the atmosphere at the time was charged, what with rumblings from Iran and North Korea, and the still-going-badly war in Iraq: still, he marvels at George Bush’s adept management of the moment, via the “down home country boy thing.” Speaking before an “Economic Club,” the president looks as insulated and confident as ever, no matter the ferocity of the protestors outside (“Chicago Hates Bush!”).
The reason he looks so confident is that the seeming footage of Bush is cobbled together from actual appearances and, when the shooting occurs, some face-obscuring reenactment. It’s the usual Bush performance, digitally doctored and rearranged to manufacture a nightmare scenario in which Dick Cheney becomes president.
From here the film follows an investigation plot, with cops and feds combing through the crime scene tracking the culprit. While Bush lingers for a bit at the hospital, the doctor eventually holds the news conference that declares his end, as the investigators carry on their work. “My job, the Bureau’s job,” Robert Maguire (Michael Reilly Burke), “is to find the attacker and bring him to justice.” Still, the film—pretending to be a hardcore investigative documentary, suggests that some of these efforts are less than honest, that they are, biased and careless. FBI Forensic Examiner James Pearn (James Urbaniak ) reveals that he quit his job when the evidence becomes less important than finding a villain as fast as possible. While this investigation’s likeness to recent slipshod, variously motivated official operations is hard to miss, the film is also making a couple of other points that are more interesting.
One of these has to do with racism and fears of “terrorists.” It’s hardly surprising that authorities narrow their focus almost immediately to “suspicious” men with beards and Afghanistan stamps on their passports. With this turn the movie underlines the effects of today’s fear-mongering and resulting/related discrimination, articulated by the wife of one suspect, Zahra Abi Zikri (Hend Ayoub). She opens the film by describing her genuine sorrow on 9/11, not only for the lives lost but also for the reactions of “a lot of people from my country.” They were pleased that “America” should suffer some of the insecurity felt daily in other realms. But, she adds, “Those people weren’t thinking or seeing ahead.” They were not seeing that generating more fear among leaders of the world’s most powerful nation would lead to more trouble for those less powerful.
While Zahra voices this critique of U.S. policy and prejudice, Cheney here embodies it. Death of a President uses the Vice President as a nearly cartoonish force of darkness (it’s hard to see his image here without thinking of Jon Stewart’s grumbling, hunched-over imitation of him). For the most part, the movie uses existing images to make this point. It borrows from Cheney’s eulogy for Ronald Reagan to have him appear to speak at Bush’s funeral (“My fellow Americans, here lies a graceful and a gallant man”), and from his well-known tendency to see and name enemies of the United States. Talking head McCarthy remembers, “Cheney had been obsessed with the Syrians for years,” but when he is unable to “sell the Syrian story to Congress… he turn[s] his attention closer to home.” That is, he and his administration find an assassin with an Al-qaeda connection and whose motives they deem “terrorist.”
Because he is so easily transformed into a parody of himself, Cheney also explicitly embodies the film’s more trenchant point, concerning “reality” as commodity and convenience. Not only does Cheney’s established worldview (looking for targets, expanding U.S. military designs) lend itself to such use, but he also provides plenty of footage to be culled and reassembled. The film’s most sensational mode—clever altering of existing imagery—underlines a couple of ideas. First, that public figures are constituted as media images. And second, that these images are in themselves manipulable representations, used daily to shape consumers’ realities, in the contexts of entertainment, spin, and political underpinning.
Death of a President isn’t exactly breaking new conceptual ground: neither the fake documentary nor the nervous-making assassination plot (think: The Manchurian Candidate or The Parallax View) is especially innovative. But it does highlight the ways that news and commercial images shape public perception. The assassination, Zahra says more than once, creates consequences more far-reaching and deleterious than the killer might anticipate. Cheney’s administration expands the Patriot Act, making smart use of the Bush funeral footage to make viewers afraid. We’ve been here before.