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A presidential fiction


It's fiction.

The indignation over the BBC British speculative fiction film "Death of a President" has died down substantially since the film received its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Some of those who were initially alarmed and offended and downright disgusted at the idea of a film about the assassination of an American president seem to have figured out that presidential assassination is not a novel idea, even in the movies. (I do not recall a storm of outrage after season two of "24," which ended with an attempt on the life of President David Palmer; nor after the beginning of season five last January, which began -- SPOILER ALERT -- with a depiction of his assassination far more explicit than anything in "Death of a President.")

The most shocking thing about the movie is portrayal of the essential truth: that George W. Bush, like his father before him during Iran-Contra, is out of the loop of history. He's a dupe, the "wimp factor" personified, and he serves only as a placeholder for the people who decided to put him in power, when he was still a pathetic nobody in Texas (the pathetic nobody he reveals himself to be every time he opens his mouth). Dubya is but a balloon with a cartoonish face painted on it. Sooner or later, the illusion will pop. By 2006, that news shouldn't be shocking to many people -- but as a perspective on history, it's still a little ahead of the curve.

For the literalists among us, however, it's all in a name. As long as the character's name is fictional (even if the office he holds is not), then the dramatization of the repercussions of a hypothetical assassination (in the case of "DoaP," set in the future: October, 2007) is OK. Just as it's apparently OK to use Robert F. Kennedy's death as an opportunity to turn the Ambassador Hotel into something like "Neil Simon's California Suite with Assassination" (in "Bobby") because, well, that murder actually happened. Right? Then there's Philip Roth's 2004 alternate history novel, "The Plot Against America," in which Charles Lindberg defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election and turns the United States into an anti-Semitic isolationist dystopia. That one has been read as an allegory for the current Bush administration, too, but Roth used other real names instead of George W. Bush's. Meanwhile, "South Park" and "Team America: World Police" graphically kill off real public figures by name, but use cartoons or puppets (with realistic gore). And disaster and horror movies depict the destruction of entire real-life cities and landmarks, with thousands or even millions killed, without any serious intent, but just for entertainment.

I don't know what the fuss is about, except that it's provided people on the right and the left with an opportunity to profess disingenuous pseudo-patriotic horror (they are shocked, shocked!) that such a thing would be deemed a suitable subject for a motion picture, and it's a good thing the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech because this is in bad taste and going too far, blather, blather, blather... (These are the same people who think Borat lives in the real Kazakhstan.)

Either you understand the difference between fact and fiction -- whether the names are real or not -- or you don't. Here's what I wrote after the Toronto press screening of "Death of a President":

"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 three 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, perhaps, 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. (The joke about Bush I was always that nobody would even try to assassinate him because it would guarantee a President Quayle. That joke sounds more chilling under Bush II.)

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 potential 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" 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."

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