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Asking, `What if?' The consequences ripple

October 27, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Gabriel Range's "Death of a President," a potato so hot the Toronto Film Festival's schedule referred to the movie only by its initials until a week before its premiere, has been so well and thoroughly flamed since September that it lands in theaters this week obscured in smoke. Somewhere within this smoldering heap of controversy is a technically inventive, thoughtful, but otherwise not particularly earth-shattering movie that imagines what would happen if the president of the United States were assassinated -- a hypothetical event it presents as calamitous.

Far from an endorsement of violence, "Death of a President," which was the winner of the International Critics Prize at Toronto, is a fairly simplistic, definitely tendentious but levelheaded call for reason on all sides. It warns of the pernicious effects of rush to judgment and thoughtless reaction, especially during times of high anxiety. All of this is well and good, except that the insertion of real events and real people into a hypothetical scenario puts the burden of believability on the hypotheses -- which are truthy but speculative.

Skillfully -- though not entirely seamlessly -- the movie blends news footage with staged street scenes, fake surveillance footage and made-up talking head interviews, as well as footage from actual antiwar demonstrations and what appears to be Ronald Reagan's funeral. From this, "Death of a President" extrapolates a scarier, but not unrecognizable, future from an already scary enough present. On a visit to Chicago to address a business association, the president is met by an unusually hostile mob of demonstrators, who breach security barriers and rush the motorcade. That evening, he is shot by a sniper as he greets supporters on the sidewalk , and dies. An isolated violent incident, it unleashes a chain reaction that gives us Dick Cheney as commander in chief, brings us to the brink of war with Syria and introduces the all-new, extra-draconian Patriot Act III.

It's presumably because the film makes Bush into a character and imagines that character killed -- rather than, say, having cast Harrison Ford as a fictional president (although, clearly, this would strain credulity; what director in his right mind would kill off Ford in the first act?) -- that inspired AMC Loews, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment Group -- major chains not ordinarily in the habit of showing tiny independent films made for British TV -- to decline publicly to show it. CNN and NPR have also refused to run ads or sponsorship messages, citing the "extreme nature of the subject matter." You have to admire the cosmic irony of a movie about political grandstanding and media timidity that becomes in itself an opportunity for grandstanding and timidity, because the alternative would involve piteous weeping. Like so many flashy art and media controversies in recent years -- the dread "Nipplegate" comes to mind, wherein a lone breast flung open the gates to a cavalcade of reactionary clampdowns, some scary, some sublimely absurd -- "Death of a President" provides a soapbox big enough to accommodate a crowd, and the fear of appearing to sympathize with a sentiment the film does not express keeps people scrambling to climb aboard. What's sacrificed in the process is critical thinking and faith in people's capacity to engage in it. What's the purpose of fiction, anyway, except to interpret events in an attempt to extract meaning from the chaos of life? Whether or not you agree with the interpretation is up to you -- provided someone doesn't try to shield your eyes from it like Mom did when passing a car accident.

The decision to use stock footage of Bush is clearly manipulative, and it works. The tension and dread achieved here owes almost everything to its uncomfortable proximity to reality. But presenting him as a character in a larger drama is also effective in unexpected ways: It's rare to see the president as a human being at the center of a volatile situation. Far from the villain of the piece, Bush is portrayed as a tragic victim of circumstance -- or at least a tragic lesser of two evils.

That's not to say that you would ever walk away from this film with the impression that the filmmakers put much stock in the rampant POTUS infatuation of his fictional inner circle, speechwriter Ellie Drake (Becky Ann Baker) and head of the presidential security detail, Larry Stafford (Brian Boland). It's perfectly clear that the film is critical of the administration's policies, and places them above the human element. But the protesters' unhinged hatred for the president as a leader comes across as tense and unnerving as interviews with fictional staff members.

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