You've really gotta hand it to Newmarket. The distributor that became a household name when it released The Passion of the Christ is courting controversy again with its purchase of Death of a President, British mockumentarian Gabriel Range's film depicting President Bush being assassinated in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2007.
This time, the buzz isn't as overwhelming as for The Passion, probably because so few people in America will actually get to see the film in theaters. Regal Entertainment Group, which opened Mel Gibson's exploitation film on countless of its screens, is refusing to show Range's exploitation film on any of them. This act of cowardice by the biggest theater chain in the country was then repeated by Cinemark, the third largest chain. AMC, I was told, is 'on the fence.â?� And, this Tuesday, three days before it was to premiere on a sole screen in Central Florida (at Cinema World in Melbourne), the owner of the theater announced the opening had been 'postponed.â?�
Still, this film has been inching toward its U.S. release date as an under-the-radar title, and it's not for lack of availability alone. The right-wing radio and TV echo chamber that lambasted (and, of course, gave free advertising to) Fahrenheit 9/11 has been comparatively muted about Death. Even the blogo-sphere has been quiet, though in some conservative op-ed pieces, it's been called a 'new low in anti-Bush hatredâ?� and 'a liberal porn movie.â?�
It's neither. Death of a President is important and provocative. It should not and cannot be ignored, no matter how much the holier-than-thou bastions of moral clarity and good taste try to dismiss it as reprehensible snuff. Yes, the title of Range's film may be a yellow, sensationalistic, 48-point headline, but the 12-point font in the actual story is sensitive, complex and patriotic.
The only way the 'liberal pornâ?� justification works is if Range condones the actions of the assassin as a kind of liberal wish fulfillment. In no way is this the case. Range presents the act as a somber tragedy. It happens after a good-natured Bush makes a successful speech about the economy and North Korea's emerging nuclear capabilities. Police suspect someone in the mob of unruly protesters gathered in the city. When they hear Bush was shot, many of the fringe activists cheer, a disgusting response that confirms Range isn't on their side.
From then on, the film is an anatomy of a murder worthy of Errol Morris, CSI and CourtTV, intercutting the forensic analysis of the assassination location with the FBI's interrogations of potential perpetrators and the political response of new President Cheney. A minor fingerprint match on the murder weapon points to a Syrian man found near the scene of the crime, but the evidence is inconclusive. It's enough for Cheney to immediately spin the killing for a potential attack on Syria and to create the Patriot Act III, which would give the executive branch unprecedented powers.
But it's not that simple; like any good fiction thriller, there are jaw-dropping twists and turns, possible exonerations and unforeseen motives. The revelations are ever more effective, capturing the pulse of a fraught nation and providing the illusion of reality.
This is no exaggeration: Death of a President is one of the most brilliant acts of deception in movie history. The Zelig-style merging of fictional characters in real settings with real characters in fictional settings is a confrontational approach that adds disturbing credibility to the project. When Dick Cheney is reciting the eulogy at George W. Bush's funeral, we really believe it.
Which leads to one Republican talking point about this movie that does hit home. Its presentation is so real and convincing, its assassin's battle plan so exposed to the minutest detail, that it may inspire a nutjob to plan his own terrifying Oct. 19 surprise.
But if the movie shows us anything, it's that the very issues that provide motives for its assassins ' Middle Eastern wars, racial profiling, expansion of the executive branch, loss of civil liberties, abuse of the Patriot Act ' are only intensified by the murder. This is the film's political heart. It's not a fantasy of any kind, but a cautionary tale; a polemic from a disheartened progressive gasping for change before the errors of Bush's foreign and domestic policies make this haunting prognostication a reality. And no patriotic American wants that.