Manufactured history guarantees manufactured controversy: Gabriel Range's Death of a President, a docudramatization of the 2007 assassination of George W. Bush, has been preceded by a long, raucous fanfare.
Excoriated on talk radio, damned as a snuff film, and banned by two theater chains, the British production has also garnered celebrity disapproval. It was criticized unseen by assassination-movie veteran Kevin Costner and denounced (also unseen) by Hillary Clinton: "That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick."
Is Death of a President more exploitative than JFK? (That was a snuff film.) And didn't Fox turn a buck on Independence Day, which jovially incinerated the White House when Mrs. Clinton was actually living there? Here's the difference: Death of a President presents the "real" Bush in a fictional situation.
Dramatically inert but a minor techno-miracle, Range's movie is a faux documentary, with fake talking heads and seamless digital effects. Invented characters are Gumped into actual news events and vice versa. The editing and audio sleight of hand are nearly as impressive. Range, who previously "documented" the collapse of British transport, used actual Chicago street protests to provide the illusion of crowds breaking through police barriers to mob the presidential limo. That's not the money shot: The assassination occurs when, leaving the Sheraton, supposedly surrounded by 12,000 flag-burning demonstrators, the President elects to work the rope line.
Range may be overcompensating, but he portrays Bush as a martyr: He has the slain President praised throughout by adoring staffers and mealy-mouthed acolytes; even at the hospital, a functionary tells the press that the chief surgeon has "never seen such a strong heart in a man of the President's age."
But Bush is but a special effect here. Death of a President is really a movie about 9-11 -- an essay on a national tragedy used to create an even greater tragedy. It's also a movie about itself -- a demonstration of reality shaped to fit a particular hypothesis. There doesn't seem to be any irony there. Range saves that for the investigation. The system is flooded with detainees while, in the matter of suspects, usefulness trumps truth. President Cheney suggests that his security advisor "take another look" at Syria. The infinite elasticity of "national security" enables a new Patriot Act to trample the Bill of Rights. But Death of a President's warning about blowback has its own unintended consequences: What follows the assassination is so awful that anyone might be excused for leaving the theater convinced of the urgent need to keep Bush alive.
The world was awash in cinema vérité 40 years ago, when British maverick Peter Watkins more or less invented the faux documentary with The War Game. He's been refining the form ever since, but Death of a President has nowhere near Watkins' agitational fervor. It's ultimately just an exercise. There's a far more subversive political mockumentary coming next week: I invite President Bush, Senator Clinton, and all politicians to get down with Borat.