November 2, 2006

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Death of a President (R)
George W. Bush is murdered during a visit to Chicago and the search for his killer becomes an attempt to up the ante in the war on terror in Death of a President.

OK, take a moment to feel what you feel — outrage at the near-anarchistic, unpatriotic and possibly treasonous suggestion that Bush would be assassinated or, you know, the giddy opposite of that. Death of a President won’t please either of these extremes. This fauxumentary shows liberals as foaming-at-the-mouth nutballs likely to turn violent at any minute and shows the administration and law enforcement types as all too happy to chuck the Constitution and civil liberties if they get in the way of Protecting Our Nation. In the end, I suppose the film is more blue than red — anything that suggests a sub rosa takeover of the government by the executive branch probably isn’t going to find fans at a Karl Rove’s house — but there’s plenty to get everyone’s panties in a bunch.

Where Death of a President really amazes is in its technical achievements. Though more than a dozen actors play FBI and Secret Service agents, a speech writer, family of the accused and police officers, the main characters in the movie are George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and other real people. With only a bit of the mouth manipulation, the movie takes actual footage of these political figures and molds them to fit the story. Bush gives a speech to a business group in Chicago. Cheney gives a presidential eulogy at Bush’s funeral. We see them get out of planes and wave to crowds. Death of a President makes Forrest Gump look antique. Though light might fall oddly on a figure or an actor seem a little too jammed into a real-life crowd, the effects are smooth enough that they can allow you to suspend disbelief at least for a little while.

Ignore the imperfections and what you have is a better-than-average TV-quality documentary full of commentary that would be right at home in a retelling of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The horrified and guilt-ridden Secret Service agent, the dogged FBI investigator, the teary speech writer — they seem real enough. We see the angry protestors who meet Bush at the hotel where he gives his speech in 2007, during an especially heated time between the US and Iran. Slowly, the story builds to the moment of the shooting. After that, an avalanche of investigation and circumstantial evidence leads the FBI to a Syrian-born man who worked in the office building from which the shots came. The nail in his coffin? In addition to his Syrian military experience, he had once attended a terrorist training camp.

Is he a pawn of the Syrian government? Is he a member of a terrorist cell? In the movie, now-President Cheney pushes both these lines of inquiry, hoping to find a way to connect the assassination to the war on terror and ultimately using Bush’s death to pass laws strengthening the powers and investigative abilities of the executive branch.

If the USA Patriot Act is as chilling to you as any Halloween ghost story, then Death of the President is a neat little frightfest with which to scare yourself. But, like the earnest documentary story it mimics, the movie also drags on, working too slowly, getting a little too caught up in watching its interviewees cry. Creepy as it is to watch any elected head of state go down, the movie rallies neither patriotism nor politics. For all its CGI wonders, Death of the President is a cold, somewhat taxing curiosity. C

Rated R for the brief violent images including that of the not-really president being not-really killed. Directed by Gabriel Range and written by Range and Simon Finch, Death of a President is an hour and 33 minutes long and is being distributed by Newmarket Films in limited release..

— Amy Diaz