Sunday, 25 March 2007
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT
Death of a President (2006) dir. Gabriel Range
“Death of a President” is a hypothetical documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush. I wouldn’t qualify it as a mockumentary, certainly not in the Spinal Tap tradition, DOAP is in a league all its own. We’re used to seeing fake documentaries as comedies, and that’s why the gimmick works so well – it plays off the deadpan seriousness of a documentary which informs the comedy. With DOAP, the fact that it’s played straight and completely realistic is the reason why it doesn’t work…
The film pretends to have been made in 2008. The events start in Oct 19, 2007 during a Presidential visit to Chicago. George W. is in town to make an economic speech as well as reinforce his position on terrorism. A large group of protestors have gathered outside to demonstrate against the usual shopping list anti-Bush agenda items. The gang outside are rougher and more violent than usual. One man manages to break the barricade and run up and touch the President’s car. One of the secret service agents refers to the act as an alarming breech of security. As a result everyone’s guard is up.
Bush makes his speech and as he’s leaving the hotel, gunshots ring out. The President is hit. He escapes in his motorcade, but it’s too late, President Bush is dead. Of course, Dick Cheney is sworn in as President (yikes!), and he immediately starts to agitate Syria, whom he’s had a vendetta against for years. The interviewees with the agents and investigators describe the evidence and multiple leads they followed during the investigation. The investigation becomes an arm of the Cheney political agenda. The American people need closure and someone has to be accountable. One Muslim woman interviewed says when she heard the news she prayed the shooter was not a Muslim. Indeed, a American Muslim with suspected Al Qaeda ties is arrested.
The documentary techniques are impeccable as the filmmaker's almost seamlessly blends stock footage, recreated footage, real speeches and fake interviews. There’s even a few Errol Morris-type sequences – slo-mo macro close-up bullets falling to the ground. On a technical level it’s groundbreaking, and in the realm of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast.
But as a piece of entertaining cinema there’s a fundamental flaw which I could never get past. It’s a big cheat and almost too perfect. A good documentary always has a bit of luck on its side, ie. getting access to a good story, being at the right place at the right time, finding the right stock footage etc. But since DOAP is fictional the filmmakers could create anything they wanted to make it compelling. The fundamental value of a documentary is that it is true. Without the truth, it’s just a 'whatif'. And I just couldn't figure out the fundamental purpose of dramatizing the film as a documentary. According to the (fake) final credits, the Muslim man charged with the murder is still on death row despite evidence and a confession that proves he’s innocent. So perhaps the film is a warning against the temptation to rush to judgment and make the incident a political tool, though the Arar case would certainly make a more compelling film.
DOAP is a marvel from a technical standpoint and interesting mock-doc experiment, let’s just hope it doesn’t catch on.
On DVD April 3rd. Buy it here: Death of a President