Saturday Night At The Movies

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?

By Dennis Hartley

Picture if you will: Sometime in the near future (October of 2007 to be precise), President Bush makes a trip to Chicago for some speechifying and political schmoozing. As his motorcade nears the site of a scheduled luncheon, it runs into a gauntlet of agitated demonstrators. When the crowd suddenly and unexpectedly breaches the police line, all hell breaks loose; there is a moment where the President appears to be in actual physical danger before things get back under control. The President is whisked off to his luncheon, he makes his speech, and decides afterwards to “work the ropes” and shake hands with supporters for a few minutes before heading out (much to the chagrin of his Secret Service detail). Suddenly, gunfire erupts and the President crumples to the ground.

This is the audacious opening scenario of British writer-director Gabriel Range’s speculative political thriller Death of a President , now on DVD. While in its initial (and sparse) theatrical release, it invoked some amount of “controversy”; primarily knee-jerk reaction from those who assumed this was going to be some type of sick Bush-hating liberal snuff fantasy (a conclusion drawn, of course, before they had even screened it).

Setting politics aside (for a moment), the film itself turns out to be a somewhat tame (and at times downright tepid) affair, despite its sensationalistic premise. Range utilizes the docu-drama technique of blending archival news footage with mixed-media film stocks (a la “JFK”) to lend an air of authenticity to his milieu. Technically speaking, the opening sequences depicting the actual assassination event are quite effective and chillingly believable. The director apparently filmed an actual anti-Bush demonstration in the streets of Chicago, then for the sake of continuity invited some of the same “real” protestors to appear as extras in the “fake” motorcade scene (which invites comparisons to Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, in which actors were thrown into the midst of some of the actual 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention demonstrator/police skirmishes and told to improvise).

Unfortunately, by front-loading the relatively gripping assassination enactment and then descending into a much more static, History Channel-style blend of talking-head “recollections” and "dramatic re-enactments", Range shoots himself in the foot and removes any possibility of suspense or dramatic tension (don’t expect an edge of your seat thriller a la "The Day of the Jackal." There is a "whodunit" element, but things slow down to such a crawl that it feels anti-climatic when the real killer is revealed.

The most interesting aspects are the speculations about a post-assassination political climate. And yes, most of your dystopian nightmares about a Cheney-led administration are alluded to, including a particularly foreboding piece of “emergency” legislation entitled the “Patriot Act 3” (shudder!). There is also a treatise of sorts about the post-9/11 tendency in this country to make “rush to judgment” assumptions about people of color (this film would make an interesting double bill with The Road to Guantanamo.)

“Conspiracy-a-go-go” buffs might find this one worth a look; others may doze off.

Political Hit Parade: JFK, Bobby , Interview With the Assassin, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, The Times of Harvey Milk, Suddenly, Executive Action, Winter Kills , In the Line of Fire , The Parallax View, The Manchurian Candidate, Taxi Driver ,Bob Roberts, Bulworth, The Day of the Jackal,Nine Hours To Rama, Z.

Character assassinations: The Hunting of the President, The Contender, Advise and Consent, The Politician's Wife, Scandal(1989)

Politicians kickin’ it, ol’ school: I, Claudius, Macbeth (1971), Julius Caesar (1953), Richard III (1955), Hamlet(1996).