Occasionally, on the festival circuit, there's a movie that garners significant press before it even opens, and mainstream press at that. The controversy could be political, artistic or any one of a number of things. This year at Toronto, the as-yet-unseen-but-buzzed-about buzz flick was Death of a President -- a British mockumentary promising a look at a hypothetical 2007 assassination of George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States. Coyly listed in the program guides as D.O.A.P., the film's mere existence and outline caused a controversy, and incited strong feelings from both the Right-wing blogosphere and Kevin Costner (raising the question of which of those is actually less relevant). Political filmmaking about what-ifs is nothing new, nor are mock-docs about politically charged realities. C.S.A: The Confederate States of and It Happened Here both come to mind, as well as much of the work of Peter Watkins. Death of a President, it seemed, might be the newest entry into the field. Or public outrage over its essential plot might make the film disappear, a casualty of a just-declared War on Premises. ...
The proof, however, would be in the pudding -- and today on an overcast
Toronto morning, the line for the pudding went around the block from the
Cumberland theater. Having seen the film, I'll share the following observations about Death of a President:
First, the press-and-industry screening this morning did, in fact, receive some applause as the credits rolled -- neither timid golf-claps nor an exultant celebration, but some. The second fact about Death of a President
is even more stark and essential: It's not very good. Death of a President
is not made as a broad-scale look at what might happen to the world, the state of things in the event of the murder of George W. Bush, or whoever may hold the office of the presidency. It's a tired, tedious mix of procedural-style storytelling, in which we're asked to engage in a slow-crawl mystery: Who really killed George W. Bush in October, 2007?
Range (a British TV veteran) gives us a lengthy walk-through to set the scene -- A Presidential visit to
Chicago ; angry protestors in the streets; Secret Service precautions; shots ring out. Never mind that Range and Simon Finch's screenplay takes an interminably long time to set up and -- pardon the phrase -- execute the central idea of the film. More damning is that for all the dramatic and artistic possibilities in the idea, the film executing that idea is a damp squib, a slow-paced obvious murder tale. Death of a President
plays like a mix of the worst parts of C.S.I.
(blood, guts, tech-babble) and Ken Burns (long-winded interviews, easy sentiment, visual stasis). Nor does it work as satire or commentary -- it's loaded with too much tedium to be shocking, and watching the film's clanging, wooden attempts at political allegory or cultural analysis is cringe-inducing.
In Death of a President
, a fictional Bush speechwriter notes of George W. Bush that he had a way of "taking advantage of people who underestimated him." Depending on your politics, you can parse that observation a thousand ways. But Range and the producers of Death of a President
are committing a similar sin: They're taking advantage of people who are over-estimating them. People and the press have been buzzing about Death of a President
for days -- an eternity in today's news cycles -- and today was the day the world got to see if Death of a President
had incendiary art or just an inflammatory premise; if it would be a great examination of 'what if
?' or a great example of 'why bother
?' You can -- and should be able to -- make art about the tragedy of any person's death, President to pauper. But Death of a President
isn't art, or even entertainment: It's the art-house, indie-doc equivalent of Snakes on a Plane
, where someone thought of a single idea and then, it seems based on the end-resulting film, stopped thinking altogether.