I’ve just found out that Death of a President (previously titled D.O.A.P. before, I don’t know, they decided it wasn’t obviously controversial enough) has just won the Prize of the International Critics (the FIPRESCI Prize) at the Toronto International Film Festival "for the audacity with which it distorts reality to reveal a larger truth."
I think this is a travesty. I honestly considered Death of a President so awful that despite initially being interested in it, I decided it didn’t even deserve a kicking in the press. But if it’s going to win awards for what it does, well, I guess the world needs my opinion. I’m an international critic myself!
Reading my introduction just there, you’ll probably be worried that I’m some kind of a knee-jerk reactionary. One largely disgusted, if not blinded, by the topic that director Gabriel Range and co-screenwriter Simon Finch have chosen to broach; the assassination of George Bush in the near future. Filmed in documentary style as if it was documenting the occurrence and the aftermath, I consider this an interesting and quite unique way to do things, and one that could have succeeded very well in saying something about the current situation in the world.
Unfortunately, Range and Finch do absolutely nothing in the pseudo-documentary to convince us that this was created with debate rather than empty controversy in mind. For one, it’s astounding just how poorly researched the film is. A British film, it was almost certainly done on a low budget, but it doesn’t take much more than an internet connection these days to discover that an attempt on George Bush’s life is going to have to be a lot more clever than it is here to succeed.
We’re talking about a fictional America in which George Bush’s motorcade is successfully stopped by protestors spilling onto the road and attacking his car (this isn’t how they do him in, by the way). Anyone who’s ever read a paper can practically tell you that these days, protests are usually cleverly positioned away from the location of George Bush and behind gigantic barriers (the much derided “free speech zones”. That’s a link to Wikipedia, for God’s sake), not right at the side of his motorcade behind tiny barriers.
There’s a scene with riot cops holding back a crowd and not a single one has a riot shield. Honestly!
The film does absolutely nothing to set itself up with a convincing universe as a satire; it doesn’t even vaguely reflect our actual world, which makes several sections of the film even more questionable. Particularly those where they use actual footage of the people in question. Most distasteful I found were the scenes of Dick Cheney talking at George Bush’s funeral; I’ve seen the footage before, and he’s actually talking about someone else, someone real, someone really dead.
Of course, when it comes down to it, that is a stylistic choice, an attempt to heighten the reality of what you’re seeing (it’ll probably work better if you don’t know the footage.) But it really just adds more to the general air of a cheap, tawdry exploitation flick.
There are many situations in the film where characters, talking heads, make statements about the American administration or their policies which could very well be fact even right now. I question if we’re meant to take these to heart without actually having any facts to back them up; a rather dishonest way to push your agenda. We all complain endlessly when they do it, of course.
It’s perhaps the core of the problem with the film. Range performs many classic cinematic manipulations to create the film, it’s obvious that he understands the documentary form well. But unless you’re really aware of what he’s doing, you’re only being manipulated, and to what ends? This isn’t a grand experiment like S&Man about the very manipulations; this is a critique of the current American administration, and as that, I find it very hard to see what worth there is in what he’s created. The film does not work as a satire and it does little to create debate about the administration or other current events; it simply seems to create debate about the film itself, a classic trick of a controversial film.
I don’t doubt the Toronto International Film Festival programmed this film because they genuinely thought it was a good and interesting contribution to the festival, but sadly I do doubt the filmmakers' choice for making it. This is exploitative filmmaking at its worst, and what makes it even more depressing is that it there are so many facts out there to use to make a powerful critique of the current American administration, and manipulative filmmakers like Gabriel Range aren’t even really trying.