Sunday night, on the eve of the fifth 9/11 anniversary, docudrama was dynamite in North America. As millions in the U.S. watched the Clinton Administration botch snuffing out al-Qaeda on the first of ABC TV's two-part miniseries The Path to 9/11, hundreds of Canadians crowded into a Paramount multiplex theater to see the Toronto International Film Festival's world premiere of Death of a President, a sober fakeumentary from Britain's Channel 4 that imagines the assassination of the current President Bush in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2007, and depicts it in footage so persuasive that some viewers may need to give themselves a reality-check pinch.
The producers of the ABC show insisted it was factual but with some made-up stuff. The director of the Channel 4 show stressed it was fiction but with copious archival footage of Bush to give the shooting a creepy verismo. If these declarations were made to clarify the makers' intentions, the strategy backfired. Advance reports of both efforts spurred demands for their suppression, virtually all of them from people who hadn't seen them.
In the case of The Path to 9/11, former Clinton officials, and the ex-Prez himself, called for the show to be yanked, on the grounds that certain White House scenes went counter to the facts as contained in the bipartisan 9/11 Commission report, on which the show was purportedly based. As for Death of a President, its detractors from Rush Limbaugh to the Republican Party of Texas claimed that the very existence of a Bush-assassination movie that trafficked in surface realism was reckless at best and at worst would encourage the act it portrayed. Limbaugh said Democrats would "demand that elected politicians actually endorse the movie, at their own peril if they don't."
My guess is that, like any smart entrepreneurs, the people behind these shows wanted to stoke free publicity on the news pages and talk shows. In that case, mission accomplished. Death of a President which was impishly acronymed in the TIFF press material as D.O.A.P. (go on, say it out loud) quickly became the festival's hottest ticket. "Publicists representing D.O.A.P seem to spend all their time rebuffing pleas for tickets," wrote Barbara Vancheri in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "As one said, 'It's like being the big-breasted blond woman on the beach in a tiny bikini,' and everyone wants a look." This excitement, suavely manufactured by the Festival and abetted by the film's detractors, will surely help boost the asking price; the movie came to Canada without a U.S. distributor.
The 8:30 p.m. screening was delayed a half-hour while every seat was filled and a few dozen chairs were brought in for other spectators while more than a hundred people in the Queue for Returns line were sent away. Noah Cowan, the festival co-director who had done his bit for Death of a President by blurbing it as "easily the most dangerous and breathtakingly original film I have encountered this year," warned the crowd that to counter illegal recording, "there will be night-vision goggling." Gabriel Range, the film's director, co-producer and co-writer, said a few words, and finally it was on with the show.
The film's first 25 mins. trace the events leading to the murder: Air Force One's landing at O'Hare, the massed street protests near the sites of Bush's appointments, his speech before a bipartisan economics group, his exit from the hotel and, as he strides out with crowds roped off on either sides, BANG!, his collapse to the ground (this accomplished by superimposing the President's face on an actor's body). Interwoven are interviews with fictional members of the White House staff, the FBI and the Chicago Police Dept.
Some evidence suggests that the sniper was a Syrian man who worked in the building from which the fatal shot was fired, and who may have had al-Qaeda sympathies. The FBI investigates other leads, but, as with the events after 9/11, Dick Cheney, now President, uses the tenuous al-Qaeda connection to push his own harsh agenda. He calls for a Patriot Act 3, suspending most civil liberties, and for military engagement with Syria. An already grotesque world situation keeps growing tesquer.
So whodunit? We'll get to that shortly. But first, the audience. TIFF audiences are among the most generous and enthusiastic in the world, but they gave Death of a President only lukewarm applause over the closing credits. They'd been so pumped up, I suspect, that the film itself almost had to be a letdown. Engrossing but not enthralling, Death of a President let the air out of its own balloon. It was hard not to be impressed by the expertise of the intercutting (archive footage, staged demonstrations and fictional interviews), by the seamlessness of the photo-realism and photoshopping. But this cleverness inevitably drew attention to itself and away from the subject. Those members of the film-savvy crowd who stayed afterward for a chat session with Range and co-writer Simon Finch asked as many questions about how'd-ja-do-it as about why'd-ja-make-it. They were more impressed by the medium than by the message.
A SHORT LESSON IN THE ETHICS OF POP CULTURE
"I hope we portrayed the horror of assassination," Range said at the TIFF screening. "There have been plenty of fictional films about assassination, and I don't think anyone would get the idea of assassinating Bush from this film." Range also declared that his movie meant to use the death of this President essentially as a device to investigate what might change in domestic and international affairs if Bush were gone.
Really? Then why have him assassinated? He could die of natural causes (some undiagnosed illness). He could be impeached. And you'd still have Cheney to kick around. No, Range shows the assassination because he can do it. He can put it on film with an eerie plausibility. And ethics be damned.
But Range as a storyteller, not a journalist needn't make excuses. For one thing, there's a simple justification for speculating on Bush's possible death: a strange mathematical coincidence. Since 1840, the previous nine presidents elected in a year divisible by 20 has either been killed (four), died in office of natural causes (four) or, like Reagan, been the victim of an assassin's bullet. Bush, declared the winner of the 2000 election, is next in line.
For another, ethics don't loom large in the creation of fiction, on the page, the stage or the screen. John Irving said that fiction was the business of inventing wonderful people and then whacking them with the worst fate you can dream up. The Greeks imagined a king who killed his father and married his mother, and Shakespeare could hardly write a tragedy without a regicide angle. It's also been a running storyline on 24. Opera, melodrama, horror movies all create worst-case scenarios, whose extremes teach home truths. Susan Sontag called science fiction "the imagination of disaster." The same goes for a genre that seeks the most lurid explanation for historical events. Call it poli-sci-fi.
David Weigel of ReasonOnline.com, in an astute piece about Death of a President piquantly titled "Other Than That, Mrs. Bush, How Was the Film?", mentions Nicholson Baker's 2003 novel Checkpoint as one of many novels about a plan to kill Bush. The novelist Richard Condon never lacked for poli-scifi cojones in Emperor of America he blew up the White House but his specialty was death-of-a-president fantasies. In The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959 and filmed three years later, he postulated the assassination of a presidential nominee by a Joe McCarthy type (the right-wingers did it!) who was controlled by an agent for the Soviet Union (no, the Commies did!). And in the 1974 Winter Kills, also filmed a few years after it appeared, Condon portrayed a president very like John F. Kennedy who is assassinated by... his father Joe!
A Bush assassination fable in the Condon spirit would have Dubya in 2007 privately ready to back out of Iraq, only to be stopped by a gunman hired by Bush's old strings-puller, and the new president, Dick Cheney. But a peacenik or Islamist or disgruntled office-seeker pulling the trigger? Not if he considers the consequences. Those around Richard Nixon used to joke that no one would shoot him, because then Spiro Agnew would become President. Similarly, anyone who harbored murderous impulses toward Bush might think for a minute and, to put in in Maureen Dowd terms, let W. live, in order to keep Darth Vader from taking over.
Death of a President isn't that conspiratorial. Rather, it's in a long line of movies that imagine the death or near-death of political royalty from the French film, The Assassination of the Duc de Guise, which was all the rage of 1908, to The Assassination of Richard Nixon, which mixed archival footage with Sean Penn acting up a maelstrom. That movie came and went without much outrage two years ago, as did the 1954 drama Suddenly with Frank Sinatra as a psycho waiting for a shot at the President as he passes through a small town. In political thrillers the plot is almost a cliche. Stop me if you've seen these before: In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, The Sentinel &...
The difference here is that the President does die. Fictionally! For all its trappings of realism, the Range movie is essentially a traditional murder mystery with political overtones. And now, Columbo-like, I'm going to reveal the killer's identity. If you don't want to know and don't want the explanation of why it makes dramatic and historical sense stop reading now.
The movie's red herring is the Syrian suspect. He is superficially plausible both because of the plague of Islamic jihadism and because of our memory of Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian who in 1968 shot Robert F. Kennedy because, he said, of Bobby's support for Israel in the Six-Day War. If Sirhan was indeed the lone gunman, then the assassination (which is dramatized in the Emilio Estevez movie Bobby, also playing in Toronto) could be said to mark the birth of Arab terrorism on U.S. soil.
But the weight of history leads us to another suspect. Look to your almanacs, folks. Who kills American presidents? Americans!
The perpetrator is the father of a soldier who had died on duty in Iraq. He blames Bush for the young man's death, shoots the President, then himself. The killer's suicide note reads: "There's no honor in standing for an immoral country. George Bush killed our David and I can't forgive him." So this time it's personal. And the assassin... is black.
The switcheroo is true to history: the killers and would-be killers of Presidents usually did so out of private grief or deranged rage. And it reminds us of something Americans have forgotten as they look outward for their most spectacular villains. The expectation that an Arab/Islamic terrorist would have his finger on the trigger shows how meekly Americans have ceded the top spot in crazy political violence to newcomers from abroad. We have a rich and disgraceful history of political violence in particular and gun violence in general. 9/11 may have changed a lot of things, but it didn't instantly turn all foreigners into assassins, or all our homegrown criminal population into pacifists.
Death of a President can be commended for making this point, within the confines of, not an incendiary documentary but a well-made political thriller. As for its fate when it achieves U.S. distribution (which it surely will), I have a prediction, which I guarantee has a better chance of coming true that Rush's. It's that the film will be one of those curios that millions of people read about but few pay to see. It will be forgotten in a year except by the Secret Service. You can be sure that, next Oct. 19, they won't let George Bush go anywhere near Chicago.