When I first heard about Death of a President, a fake documentary that depicts the assassination of George W. Bush, I assumed that it would be a fashionably irresponsible piece of demagogic leftist wish-fulfillment, a righteous political harangue posing as reality. Actually, it’s more somber and tangled and ingenious than that. The movie is a provocation, but not a glib or ideologically myopic one. It strikes the urgent, open-eyed tone of a Frontline investigative report, interspersing video-surveillance footage with talking-head testimony from (fictional) U.S. officials and Secret Service agents — and, in the film’s most startling and resonant trick, assembling the heart of its staged reality out of actual news footage.
Early on, there are clips of demonstrators who line the streets chanting ”Chicago hates Bush!” as the narrator describes a mood of despair that has fermented into chaos and collective fury. Death of a President hits the zeitgeist jackpot; it roots itself in an all too timely mood of souring national rage. The movie, which begins in 2007, shows us President Bush arriving at the airport and addressing the partisan Economic Club of Chicago in a jokey speech that touches on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, then joining a crowd of participants for an informal rope-line meet and greet. The director, Gabriel Range, who has made a number of dramas in documentary form for British television, forges a grainy, newsreel, believe-your-eyes verisimilitude, a technique that works stunningly well right up through the assassination, in which a flash of blood and a subliminal glimpse of the president’s crumpling body evoke both the dawn-of-the-media-age horror of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald and the attempted assassination of President Reagan. A jolting close-up of Dick Cheney as he delivers Bush’s eulogy in eerily precise detail will make you wonder how the filmmakers brought it off. (They used a clip of Cheney from Reagan’s funeral, digitally fudging a few words.)
The film’s atmosphere of plausibility is its most devious trick: If we believe Death of a President as we’re watching it, then we implicitly buy the assassination of George Bush not as a far-fetched crackpot dream but as an act that could literally emerge from the collision of these crowds, this president. Even if you think of yourself as a proud Bush basher, you may be surprised at how the prospect of political homicide makes you recoil, makes you want to see the president protected.
In its second half, as it traces the hunt for the killer, Death of a President becomes a whodunit that is also a cautionary tract. Eager to fold the calamity into its war on terror, the government pins the assassination on a Syrian national who is clearly innocent. If that sounds like a didactic thesis, it is. Yet even as it sketches in a national clampdown that is observationally and satirically rather humdrum (ratcheting up the Patriot Act, etc.), the movie makes you realize just how much we now accept in this country as business as usual. Death of a President begins as a disturbingly clever stunt but concludes as a contradiction, a political nightmare of haunting banality.