Joe Morgenstern: "Death of a President" courts controversy, but to what end?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Morgenstern is the Journal's movie critic.]

he first question posed by "Death of a President" is whether a filmmaker has the right to shout Assassination in a crowded theater. That's what happened, in effect, on Sunday night at the Toronto International Film Festival when Gabriel Range's film was screened for the first time, to a turnaway audience. A fake documentary set one year in the future, "D.O.A.P.," as it has also been called, depicts the assassination of President Bush by a lone gunman, and the prosecutorial rush to judgment that follows.

The answer to the question is yes, of course a filmmaker has the right. A distinction must be made between provoking controversy with obviously fictional, albeit incendiary, events, and provoking panic over a nonexistent fire. What's more, Mr. Range, an Englishman with an uncommon gift for simulating reality on screen, plays a clever game with his audience, inviting a rush to judgment on the merits of his film. I confess to having done just that--jumped to the conclusion, sight unseen, that nothing the film might contain would be likely to justify the implicit opportunism of its premise. Now that I've seen it, I think that sometimes one jumps to the right conclusion.

The action begins in October 2007, when Air Force One touches down in Chicago and a motorcade takes President Bush to a downtown hotel, where he is to deliver a speech on the economy. (Video snippets of speeches Mr. Bush has actually given in Chicago are seamlessly integrated with the staged reality.) The scene-setting is impressive, and plausible enough, if pessimistic. The economy has been battered by soaring oil prices. North Korea poses a suddenly imminent nuclear threat. Opposition to the war in Iraq has brought throngs of angry demonstrators to Chicago's streets. And the film is respectful of Mr. Bush as a person, even though its heart obviously lies with the demonstrators, and later the arrestees, who fiercely denounce his administration's policies.
But the title of this production is, after all, "Death of a President," and its fateful narrative generates a buildup of anxiety from the moment the presidential plane hits the runway. The ingredients are mercilessly familiar: the motorcade hinting at Dallas; the surging protesters and club-wielding cops suggesting the deadly combat of Chicago during the Democratic convention of 1968; the president's vulnerability on the street evoking the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life. And I'm euphemizing when I say "anxiety." For those of us who are old enough to remember the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the right word is anguish: Mr. Range's film is an anguish-generator of enormous intensity.

But let's set aside that generational divide for the moment and acknowledge that works of art can and sometimes should evoke fear and dread in the beholder. The next questions are whether "Death of a President" is a work of art, and whether it puts us through what it puts us through in order to illuminate something else beyond the anger and potential violence of contemporary life.

The film is certainly artful in its deployment of tried-and-true documentary techniques to create an alternate reality. Before and after the assassination (the details of which are mercifully veiled by crowds and ensuing chaos), Mr. Range, who wrote the script with Simon Finch, uses actors in fictional straight-to-the-camera interviews to reconstruct the events leading up to the shooting, and to comment on what ensues. Mr. Range is very good at directing actors--he may have a bright future in conventional fiction films. And the script is very sly in imputing to the new president--President Cheney--an eagerness to act on the basis of dubious evidence: i.e. the indictment of a Syrian immigrant, despite grave doubts about his guilt. "Cheney," we are told by one faux interview subject, "had been obsessed by Syria, and getting rid of Assad, for years." ("Death of a President" was originally made for British television. There are currently no plans for broadcast in the U.S., although the screening has stimulated interest in theatrical distribution.)....

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