Freeheld stumbles over too many hurdles to recommend it. The film’s heart is in the right place, but its focus is not.
TORONTO -- "Death of a President," the documentary-style speculative fiction about the assassination of the 43rd President of the United States, is seamless, intelligent and maybe even necessary to an understanding of George W. Bush's role in the world today, and his place in the wider scope of history. Especially when public awareness of the facts about his administration lags so far behind what has already been documented.
Written and directed by Gabriel Range, this very convincingly staged television "documentary" falls into a tradition of fictionalized British films (going back to Peter Watkins' famous "The War Game" and "Punishment Park" in the early 1960s) that use nonfiction techniques to explore contemporary social and political issues. Range himself made a film in 2003 called "The Day Britain Stopped," about what might happen if public transportation came to a standstill. Before that, he made "The Menendez Murders" (2002), described as another form of docu-drama.
The scenario is a familiar one: What would happen if a much-hated world leader was killed in office? Since the failed assassination attempts on Adolph Hitler, fictions imagining how things might have changed with the elimination of one powerful figure have fascinated historians and the public. How could they not?
We all know that four U.S. presidents have been assassinated, and that every president faces that threat every day. Gerald Ford, one of our most benign chief executives, survived two murder attempts in the month of September 1975 alone -- and he was never as divisive and generally reviled as Bush Jr., whose methods and ideology have been vilified as Hitlerian in real-life speeches and demonstrations that we've all seen already. (I'm speaking only about the real-life hatred the man has evoked worldwide, not the aptness of the Nazi comparison or whether such virulence is justified by his words and actions in office.)
"Death of a President" sticks to the assassination and the search for the killer, without exploring the domestic or global political repercussions of an official Cheney administration -- or even whether President Cheney runs for re-election. It covers events from October, 2007, to about a year later. What the film does is to take the real events that have characterized the Bush administration -- particularly its most infamous political modus operandi of marshaling selected and manufactured "facts" to fit a preordained conclusion -- and transpose them from the past into the future. When a forensics expert talks about the evidence against a suspect as being supportive but, in itself, inconclusive (nine points of comparison on a single fingerprint), and says he was told repeatedly to "look again" to strengthen a weak case, it's exactly like the CIA analysts who were interviewed in several "Frontline" documentaries talking about the phony case the administration made for the invasion of Iraq.
There is talk of the hundreds of people -- including American citizens -- who suddenly "vanished" from the US after 9/11, rounded up and detained indefinitely in shadow prisons abroad. Something similar happens after the assassination. "Patriot Act III" is passed in the immediate aftermath of Bush's death, giving the FBI and Homeland Security more unspecified surveillance and arrest "powers" -- when what's really needed is stricter adherence to existing procedures and (better analysis of existing intelligence).
The Bush assassination, which takes place outside the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Chicago, is politically exploited, just like 9/11, within hours. President Cheney looks for any excuse to go after Syria. A likely suspect is identified in an article on "page 3 or 4" of the Chicago Sun-Times, but somehow that story never catches the public's attention and is overlooked by officials more interested in job security and appearances. Again, just like the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Everyone seems to agree that the anti-Bush demonstrations in Chicago that day were exceptionally angry. A top Chicago police official says he may disagree with the demonstrators, but that they have the right to protest. But, he claims, the key language in the First Amendment says such expressions must be "peaceful and law-abiding." (The First Amendment does mention the right of the people to "peaceably assemble," but, of course, the question is always what constitutes "peaceable," and what state actions are appropriate to protect the public -- and, in this case, the president -- from harm.) As a Secret Service agent explains, his job is to protect the president, and when demonstrators break police lines, actually stop the motorcade and come into contact with the presidential vehicle, that is no longer free speech but a direct security threat. I wouldn't contest that at all.
Most of all, "Death of a President" is electrifying drama, and compellingly realistic. The actors chosen for interview segments (including the mom from "Freaks & Geeks" as a presidential speechwriter) are unerringly authentic as real people, speaking spontaneously before a documentary lens -- even when it's clear they've rehearsed in their heads what they're going to say, and may even have told these same stories any number of times before. (An arrogant interrogator is particularly convincing in telling self-aggrandizing anecdotes about his assessment and treatment of a suspect.)
There's no reason to be threatened by this film, any more than there was to be by "United 93" or "World Trade Center." It's responsible and observant about the world we live in -- and it's certainly not going to give anybody any ideas they haven't had already. In its use of real or fictionalized narratives to examine recent political events -- especially the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq -- "Death of a President" isn't all that different from innumerable other films in this year's festival, from "The Host" (2007) to "Pan's Labyrinth" to "Rescue Dawn."
"Death of a President" has been in the Toronto festival guides as "D.O.A.P." (or "dope"), as if the actual title of the film was too inflammatory for publication (perhaps in the way the comedy "The Pope Must Die" was retitled in America as "The Pope Must Diet"). The "D.O.A.P." designation does not appear on the movie itself. At the press/industry screening Tuesday morning, however, the acronym was conjured by an anti-Bush protest sign in the film that got a good laugh from the international audience: "Solid as a Rock. Only Dumber."
P.S. Throughout the festival, men in short-sleeved white shirts have stood in the aisles during press screenings shooting infrared video of the crowd. During the movie, mind you. Ostensibly, this is just a distracting and intrusive anti-piracy measure -- the price you pay for, well, watching a movie. I guess the idea is that if the tapes show any members of the audience photographing what's on the screen, they can be tracked down and prosecuted. No word about those who just pick their noses or itch their butts, but I'm sure a compilation of that footage will eventually appear somewhere -- perhaps on the Internet. I can't tell you, though, how disconcerting it was to see these guys filming us as we watched "Death of a President" and the film talked about the new surveillance procedures allowed under "Patriot Act III." If I disappear trying to legally cross back into the U.S. (I'm a citizen), please look for me.
There's another documentary in the festival, JT Petty's "S&MAN," about a creepy "underground" horror filmmaker who shoots a series of stalker movies, following women on the street and to their jobs and then "killing" them. He makes his living selling these on DVD, and their appeal is based in the fact that they appear to be real voyeuristic material. As far as I'm concerned, the creeps with the cameras at TIFF may as well be doing the same thing.
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