Well, what is your weapon of choice when it comes to making a point? Last night’s television premiere of Death of a President went so far as to fake the assassination of George W. Bush to comment on the civil liberties debate in the current climate of so-called anti-terrorism. Gabriel Range’s controversial film is a shock-u-drama worthy of an Orson Welles or an Arch Oboler, who, with “The War of the Worlds” and “Chicago, Germany” (mentioned here) did on the radio in the late 1930s and early 1940s what Death of a President renders concrete with digital precision: a dark vision of the corruption and collapse of what we have come to think of as civilization.
It took more than a bullet and some digital trickery to get this point across; indeed, the minutes leading to the killing of the president and the deadly assault itself struck me as a pointless exercise in elaborate and laboriously executed fakery. While the assassination plot unfolded in flashbacks, accompanied by commentaries from various sources involved or caught up in its investigation, I kept asking myself why the death of President Bush (rather than any generic substitute) was desirable to the makers of this film; and, unable to arrive at an immediate answer, whether there was any point to this literal approach of shooting down an iconic figure that is being shot down so often—and not without wit or reason—by pundits and pollsters alike.
Was Range’s effort the cinematic equivalent of a carnival shooting range where Bush could be brought down by simulated armament rather than salient arguments, all with the spectator’s understanding that it amounts to mere show, not an actual showdown? Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to protest or debate instead of indulging in such imaginary exploits?
It would hardly be justifiable to mow down a standing president for the sake of sheer sensationalism. Yet unlike “Abrogate,” Larry Gelbart’s futuristic radio satire on the Bush years broadcast on BBC radio earlier this year (and discussed here), Death of a President is not a crass attempt at revenge fantasy; nor does it stir the emotions with lurid melodrama. Indeed, I was disconcertingly detached from the spectacle itself. Less than captivated by the scenes leading up to the crime, my scrutinizing eyes registered that the trees looked quite bare to suggest Chicago in mid-October, 19 October 2007 having been chosen as the reappointed one’s appointed hour of departure. Was it proper for me to be counting gaffes as the film counted down the final moments in the life of a world leader?
The assassination itself, as it turns out, is merely a premise, the hook for a compelling debate about the state of post-9/11 political reasoning and makeshift moral righteousness, as well as the consequent risking of individual freedoms in the dealing with global terrorism. If some unidentified assassin were to shoot the president of the United States, the film invited me to think, what assumptions would I have about the perpetrator? Do the media—or does the government—create or at least favor politically advantageous suspects? Are we not complicit in this hunt for the politically correct culprit? We know that both the press and the president are capable not only of inciting wars but of inventing them. Now, if the killer could be made out to be Syrian, would this provide the US with an opportunity to stage further wars in the Middle East while curtailing the liberties of its diverse citizenry that it claims to be so determined to defend?
Death of a President is a twisted whodunit; but as it fakes such momentous news, it raises questions about the act of fakery, its uses and consequences as we find ourselves rushing to injustice and leaping to deadly conclusions. The character it assassinates is decidedly our own.