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`Death' of a movie

October 16, 2006

CONSIDERING THAT PRACTICALLY no one has seen it yet, the film "Death of a President" is garnering an impressive list of enemies. A fictional documentary set in 2007 that depicts the assassination of President Bush, the movie will not be shown in two of the nation's largest theater chains.

"We feel it's inappropriate to portray the future assassination of a sitting president, regardless of political affiliation," said Mike Campbell, chief executive of Regal Entertainment Group, the nation's largest theater chain. He's entitled to his decision, as are executives at Cinemark USA, which will not show the film. But their reasoning is suspect.

The movie, directed by British filmmaker Gabriel Range and originally made for television in Britain, premieres Oct. 27 in the United States. Last month it won the International Critics Prize at the Toronto Film Festival, and more than 100 venues nationwide have so far agreed to show it. The studio releasing it, Newmarket Films, is no stranger to controversy, having released Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004.

But what exactly about "Death of a President" is controversial? Is it the content of the movie, which its creators describe as a political thriller? Or is it simply the premise itself, as many of its critics say?

It may be that, in this case, the medium is more provocative than the message. The film is undeniably jarring, especially when it uses special technical effects to superimpose Bush's face on a figure who's seen interacting with fictional advisors and, eventually, being shot amid protesters outside a Chicago hotel.

But the film is complex, restrained and painstakingly careful not to glorify violence (of which there's actually very little). Focusing mainly on the investigation that follows the killing, the film examines the pressure to rush to judgment and suggests that no amount of antipathy toward a president can justify the chaos that would likely follow an assassination. Most people would be hard-pressed to walk out of "Death of a President" without holding this or any president's life a little dearer.

Granted, theater chains are entitled to make their own decisions and, in any event, an independent film with no major stars is unlikely to be a blockbuster. And it's likely that all the publicity surrounding "Death of a President" will make some people more likely to seek it out, even if they have to travel beyond their local cineplex. But it's still disappointing when the management of a cinema chain refuses to show a film merely because of its premise.

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