- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

Writers have been asking the question “What if?” for centuries. What if Alexander the Great had lived to attack Rome? (See Livy’s “History of Rome.”) What if the Axis had won World War II? (See Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle.”)

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the genre of alternate history has now expanded — with great controversy — to the genre of alternate future.

“Death of a President” was probably the most talked-about film at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the International Critics’ Award. No one talked about the content of the film; everyone talked about its concept.

The film is a mock-documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush on Oct. 19, 2007, as he shook hands with the crowd assembled in front of a Chicago hotel. And there, in one simple sentence, lies all the controversy: a British filmmaker has portrayed the murder of a sitting president.

“Death of a President” appears to be one of those films that serves as a mirror for the viewer’s own prejudices. Liberal reviewers have gushed that this is a “landmark” film so insightful every thinking person must see it. Conservative reviewers have grumbled that this is a “snuff film” that advocates the assassination of President Bush for his foreign policy.

They’re all wrong.

“Death of a President” is neither as good nor as a bad as the pundits would have you believe.

The film does not revel in the death of a president — in fact, the actual event is treated with a surprising lightness of touch. We don’t even see any blood.

But it is hardly the most insightful film about politics this year. (That prize probably goes to “The Last King of Scotland.”)

Half the film details the days and hours before the assassination. This narrative isn’t as interesting as the hunt for the assassin, but it does help to establish a story that begins to feel real.

In fact, it’s hard to believe that so convincing a film was made for British television at a cost of only $2 million. It’s almost a shame that director and writer Gabriel Range chose such a controversial subject; it’s overshadowed his real accomplishment here. This talented director has made an astonishingly good-looking, realistic pseudo-documentary at a bargain basement price. President Dick Cheney even gives a completely believable eulogy for George Bush.

But far from being courageous, Mr. Range’s film shies away from exploring any difficult ground. A woman speaking in Arabic at the beginning of the film asks — rhetorically — if the killer thought about the consequences of his action, not just for his family, but for America itself. The administration of President Cheney, we learn, pushes through USA Patriot III. Syria is blamed almost immediately for the assassination. It sets the stage for a compelling political study, but Mr. Range never follows through. He only hints at the difficult questions such an audacious project should be asking.

But we should thank him for reminding us how political beliefs can affect our responses to art. One wonders if even the Motion Picture Association of America is immune. It rated “Death of a President” “R for brief violent images” that lasted seconds. “The Prestige,” which featured multiple deaths and an adulterous affair, only got a PG-13.

**

TITLE: “Death of a President”

RATING: R for brief violent images

CREDITS: Directed by Gabriel Range. Written by Mr. Range with Simon Finch.

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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