“So what are you doing here”, I was asked, as I sat down for Gabriel Range’s Death of a President. The woman appeared slightly drunk, though most assuredly obnoxious. “This is the closest I’ll get to seeing Bush assassinated”, I responded, which prompted the patron’s joyful applause. The crowd was not large, but it’s safe to assume that everyone else was there for exactly the same reason, perhaps because a film that shows — albeit through trickery and clever editing — the violent death of the Commander in Chief is as close as we’ll ever get to an overt expression of our collective desire. It is illegal to advocate the murder of the President of the United States, and I do not do so now, but why else would anyone attend a faux documentary about Bush’s death unless they harbored secret — or not so secret — fantasies about just such a thing? Could there be any other explanation for such a film to exist, after all? Based on the end product, even in light of the endless hype and hysteria surrounding its Toronto premiere, there does seem to be more at stake here than a snuff film acting as red meat for the Left, even if the film fails to live up to its initial promise.
It’s one hell of a premise, though: after a speech in Chicago in October 2007, Bush is assassinated in a receiving line outside the hotel, which sets off a desperate manhunt for the killer. This in turn leads to the arrest of a Syrian man with alleged ties to terrorism. Despite little physical evidence linking this man to the crime (other than a single fingerprint that is never really confirmed as belonging to anyone in particular), he is railroaded through the justice system, found guilty of murder, and locked away. And yet, we discover that most likely, the real assassin was a grieving ex-soldier who lost his son in Iraq and blamed Bush for his pain. Needless to say, it would not satisfy the war on terror narrative to have a member of the military responsible for the death of the president, so that particular lead — even after the man commits suicide and leaves behind a mountain of evidence — is not pursued. The Syrian man is a better fit, and his arrest charges up the engines of war once again, this time in the form of air strikes against Syria. It’s a realistic scenario to be sure, one made that much more believable by convincing splicing and effects that “create” a President Cheney mourning along with the nation.
And yet, despite the audacity and creativity behind this fictional documentary, it blew its chance to be ultimately devastating. Sure, we hear about a Patriot Act III that grants even more surveillance powers to the Executive branch, but other than that single case, the country does not seem to have changed much in the wake of Bush’s death. Perhaps there wouldn’t be a great deal of upheaval, but based on the terms of the movie, we should expect far more violation of civil liberties, or even the erection of a police state. The film, after all, is a “warning” of sorts, informing us that in this political environment of fear and dread, the death of the president at the hands of a terrorist would turn the United States on its head, thereby creating the very fascistic empire so coveted by members of the hard Right. It would be the final nail in the nation’s coffin, and the neo-cons would at last have that final piece — the bookend of 9/11 — to end liberalism’s long national reign. If they — “they” meaning the enemies of freedom — can get to the most powerful among us, then it’s time to lock down and get serious. Future laws and protective measures would make the current climate appear benign by comparison.
But Death of a President fails to paint such a picture, and the nation is largely unchanged by the event. What, then, should we fear? Of course, even saying the words “President Cheney” makes any reasonable person sick to his or her stomach, but we all know that he runs the show anyway, so that’s hardly a major shift in national policy. Perhaps the director can be complimented for not giving in to the temptation to exaggerate, in that he realizes an Orwellian future would be unlikely, and to argue that it’s possible would turn his film from mere speculation to unbelievable science fiction. Maybe he too is aware that the erosion of liberty, at least in America, occurs in stages, and no government official would ever be so bold as to bite off big chunks that draw attention to the violation. Sure, the film could then be arguing that Bush’s death would allow for even more bits and pieces to be eroded away, but again, how does that differ from reality? Habeus corpus is already gone and we failed to take notice, so how much worse could it really get? Admittedly, it would have been ridiculous to turn Cheney into Darth Vader and so darken the post-assassination world that it became wholly unrecognizable, but at least that would have been dramatic, instead of the sort of piece that elicits a brief, though respectful, shrug.
If Range’s film proves anything, it is that one should always be wary of “controversial” as a label for any form of entertainment. Perhaps it’s my abnormally high level of tolerance for that which usually sends others to the showers, but I can’t imagine why this film would upset anyone. If anything, the Left comes across as the most insipid group of all, as their protests and parades reek of bad performance art rather than productive expression. Sure, I’m glad to see anyone fulfilling his or her duty as a citizen in these apathetic hours, but haven’t we found a better method of holding power accountable than putting on Halloween masks, slapping swastikas on poster board, and chanting bad poetry like the world stopped turning after Woodstock? I know it’s only a year into the future, but rather than an addendum to the Patriot Act, I’m most appalled by our lack of imagination concerning the right to demonstrate. I’m convinced that one of the signs of maturity is the understanding that screaming in the streets with paint on your face is, contrary to the self-importance of the participant, largely ignored by anyone able to alter policy. This painful display of childishness has persisted throughout our Iraq debacle, and anyone still running around like it’s Mardi Gras does so out of sheer ignorance of what works and what doesn’t in a democratic society. Or keep trying to levitate the damn Pentagon if you think it will revolutionize the world.
Maybe the boldest statement possible concerning a post-assassination America is that nothing — not even the slightest repressive measure — would be invoked in the name of freedom. Range presents something close to a modest response, but accidentally, rather than through ironic indictment. If a film states without equivocation that Bush’s death wouldn’t change a thing and the population would go on as it does now, that’s both a slap in the face to the idea that Bush means anything to us emotionally, as well as a nod to the reality that he is a mere puppet, and that Cheney’s elevation is, at last, an end to the pretense. Even more, the death of a leader in these times — when no one on either side has a goddamn thing to say about anything not checked and re-checked by staffers — fails to cause a ripple because the game is rigged in the board rooms, not the Oval Office. Nixon once said that he’d be more than happy with a presidency that dealt strictly with foreign policy, and left domestic duties to someone else, perhaps a prime minister. Even he saw that in its current incarnation, the presidency doesn’t mean a thing to us. The warning to us all, then, is that the government itself is a façade; a desperate, choreographed illusion that acts much like the royal family in Great Britain. The death of a president, far from traumatic or trying, is met with silence. The very vacuum of irrelevance.