"Death of a President": An Ingenious Fake By Klaus Eder

in 31st Toronto International Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

This is what happens. President George W. Bush arrives in Chicago to make a speech. Leaving the hotel, he’s gunned down. Vice-president Dick Cheney takes over the presidency. The FBI researches the case and finds several suspects, among them a Syrian immigrant. Years later, there’s still no conclusive proof of who shot Bush.

This is a fictitious story. However, one needs to double underline this, because British filmmaker Gabriel Range does a damned good job to make you believe that what you see is what you get: a real story. He tells the fictitious story as if it was reality. It’s a bold and ingenious fake, and it’s done in such an intelligent way that you walk into the trap.

George W. Bush plays George W. Bush. Dick Cheney plays Dick Cheney. An actress plays an advisor to the president; an actor plays an FBI agent. Are they real actors? Or, maybe, a real advisor, a real agent? If Bush is Bush, they could also be real, no? Asking this, you’re already trapped. You’ve already forgotten the film’s opening text: “Chicago, October 2007”. How can a film trip us up so quickly?

Gabriel Range uses existing footage: Archive materials, television clips. Harsh, aggressive anti-Bush demonstrations in the streets of Chicago. Police trying to control the situation. The presidential convoy. FBI agents everywhere. The president, entering a hotel, making a speech, leaving the hotel … it’s all existing material. It’s nevertheless a great deal of work to make the diverse footage suit the murder story of 2007. Here, of course, manipulation starts: Inserting actors in the archival documents, or transforming Dick Cheney’s eulogy at the Reagan funeral to a memorial to Bush. Only, the manipulation is done so skillfully and even impudently that you cannot but admire the special-effects people who have performed it: One of the attractions of the film comes, indeed, from its perfection of manipulation.

Death of a President looks like one of those historical television docu-dramas, where years or decades later a mostly political case or incident is researched and unfolded, alternating documentary material with contemporary statements from witnesses and experts. Gabriel Range uses the trappings of this genre to fake reality. But since his lies are seductive, convincing and to a certain degree credible, his film polemically criticizes the genre. The aesthetics of television itself are being tested. After having seen the film, it will probably be difficult to fully trust another docu-drama.

Gabriel Range knows of course that such media criticism, as sharp as it may be, does not make a movie. He uses very cleverly another genre as well: the CSI police thriller. Death of a President is told in the style of a forensic drama, with the same beat of editing (“Two hours later”, “Five days later”), alternating action with statements, thus approaching the case from different perspectives. It’s not the message, it’s the well thought-out and knowledgeable (and, yes, polemical) use of filmic language which make Death of a President an extraordinary cinematic experience. And the movie’s message is an ambivalent one: After seeing the film, one might possibly wish President Bush not to be killed – just to avoid Dick Cheney becoming president.

One of the film’s interesting points is its view of the FBI machinery, and how it runs up to a gigantic blind activity — a motor running at full speed while the car stands still around it. Paul Greengrass developed a similar view in United 93. Gabriel Range goes one courageous step further. He shows the FBI machine first helpless, surprised, and then springing to action just to be seen acting, without orientation, spinning around itself. As there are no suspects, one, two, three suspects are created, are invented. They and their families get to feel the whole power of a state persecution. Obviously, there are always indications which can make someone look suspicious. The film shows how unscrupulously the FBI uses such indications to quickly convict culprits, whether or not they are actually guilty.

It’s frightening to see how quickly Arabs come under fire. The first guess of the FBI and the media is indeed that the murder of the President has been committed by terrorists, by Al Qaeda — even if there’s not a shred of evidence to support such a theory. It’s an easy theory, nowadays. The film begins with a statement of an Arab woman (who is, as we learn later, the wife of the Syrian suspect) who hopes that the assassination of President Bush has not been committed by Al Qaeda or any Muslim terrorist because the consequences for Muslims living in the States would, as she says, be terrible. The film arrives exactly at this point. A Syrian is condemned because some vague indications are turned against him – even it turns out, years later, that he’s almost certainly innocent. Gabriel Range shows how the FBI machine, the security administration, produces victims. And, as it is a perfect machine, there is no escape.

That’s the harsh comment of a British filmmaker on the present-day United States of America. As you might expect, a lot of people there don’t like the film.