Controversy meets moral Death in neo-documentary

By Matt Johnston

Buried beneath a lot of bluster and controversy, there is a worthwhile movie called Death of a President. If you know anything about it, you know that it portrays the assassination of George W. Bush. But when it comes to the key passage, there is no sense of exploitation. I can imagine that this began as an intriguing idea for a story rather than as a publicity stunt.

And why shouldn’t filmmakers be able to examine a world in which a president—or even The President—is shot? Our nation has witnessed four such assassinations. The discussion of a hypothetical fifth does not necessarily fall along party lines. Death of a President, though unquestionably a partisan movie, does not for a moment suggest that Bush ought to be shot. Rather, it uses the shooting as a springboard to examine what might take place given that context.

The most troubling element of the film, then, is not the assassination itself, which takes place mostly offscreen, but the motives ascribed to some real-life figures. In the style of a documentary, the filmmakers interview actors portraying various aides to the administration and its security partners. One of these characters reports a phone call with now-President Cheney—a purely fictional phone call, mind you—in which Cheney tells him to look for a case against Syria, to massage the evidence even. This goes beyond the pale of political criticism. The filmmakers should certainly say all they wish about Cheney’s nonfiction record: That is within their right and purpose as commentators. But a line is crossed when they not only predict, but go so far as to report, Cheney’s dishonesty following Bush’s death. If Death of a President were a satire, if it showed reality tweaked with a 10-percent injection of insanity, then the Cheney call would be completely acceptable. The problem here is that the film takes on an objective tone about what would happen rather than a slightly comedic tone about what could happen.

But this is just echoing the publicity campaign, discussing the movie’s few controversial bits instead of its real heart and soul. Death of a President is a good movie. It effectively renders the political world, capturing not only the anger of anti-Bush protesters but also the immense pride felt by his inner circle. It sees the difficulty in having an objective investigation in the face of enormous public outcry. Suddenly, a partial fingerprint is a death sentence rather than a piece of inconclusive evidence. The possibility of finding an unbiased jury is remote. The probability that any jury will send down a verdict based on fear is high.

The most effective scenes involve the character Zahra Abi Zikri, played by unknown actress Hend Ayoub. She is the mother of a key suspect. Her first reaction on hearing of Bush’s assassin is “Please God, don’t let it be a Muslim.” That’s a telling reaction. The movie does not shy away from it, nor from the possibility that the assassin may have been a self-proclaimed Muslim. At one point, investigators look down a list of people and pick out all of the Islamic-sounding names. In that moment, we recognize both the injustice and bigotry of that selection and its cold utility. The search yields the identity of a man caught on camera near the site of the crime. This is important. Making him entirely above suspicion would pose an easy question. The film wisely looks at a more difficult question with realistic stakes.

On the finish line, though, Death of a President stumbles. It sets up nuanced, complicated issues about the conflicts between freedom and security, but then throws them away for an oversimplified parable of good versus evil. Fictional mysteries have the luxury of highlighting key clues in the chaos of evidence, and screenwriters Simon Finch and Gabriel Range do an excellent job presenting the daunting task of sifting through thousands of clues. But, dissatisfied with the ambiguity of reality, they throw in a simple explanation for the sake of closure. The story becomes a choice between freeing an innocent man and putting him to death. For shame. In reality, we do not have the privilege of writing such convenient endings, but Finch and Range face no such practical limitations. They pass from the startling realism of a pseudo-documentary into the utopian nonsense of a moralistic fable.