Death of a President

Are the Brits really so much better at dissecting American culture than we are? Between the hilarious satire of “Borat” and now the provocative political analysis of “Death of a President,” the English are doing a more thorough job of criticizing us than many of our own comedians and pundits can manage.

Not that “Death of a President” is flawless. It has some things fundamentally wrong with it. Some people wonder if it was made solely to be controversial — it’s about the assassination of George W. Bush, after all — and those people may have a point. But it goes further than just being sensationalistic, and it takes a position on America’s current state of affairs that, while not new, has not been presented in quite this way before.

The film is in the form of a documentary set sometime in 2009. On Oct. 19, 2007, President Bush was assassinated outside a Chicago hotel where he’d been speaking, and Islamic radicals were quickly blamed for the murder. The film shows clips from his speech and even the assassination itself (created through some nifty CGI manipulation of existing Bush footage), then moves on to the aftermath: the manhunt, the arrests, the trials.

The “documentarians” interview FBI personnel, Secret Service agents, a Bush speechwriter and other concerned parties — all fictional and played by actors, of course, but the actors do a stellar job of seeming natural, their lines sounding like real testimonials and not pre-scripted dialogue. Director Gabriel Range, who once made a set-in-the-future mock-doc about the breakdown of the UK’s transportation system, has the look and feel of a documentary down pat. If the dates weren’t all set in the future, you’d find only a handful of giveaways that the film isn’t a real documentary.

Except for one crucial mistake in the way it is structured: It’s presented as a mystery, the way a fictional film would be, with us not knowing for sure who killed Bush until near the end. There are red herrings, false leads, and then finally arrests and revelations. But think about it. If the president had really been shot and the culprit had really been identified, a documentary on the subject would assume the viewer knew that going in. Can you imagine a documentary about Lincoln’s death NOT mentioning John Wilkes Booth within the first five minutes? Wouldn’t you be frustrated and bored if it waited until the end to “reveal” who Lincoln’s killer was?

“Death of a President” isn’t frustrating or boring, of course, because we DON’T know who killed Bush, because Bush hasn’t actually been killed. But it’s a serious crack in the basic conceit of the film. Great pains are taken to make it look and sound like a documentary, yet it is ultimately not plausible as one.

Laying aside the structural problems, however, the film’s ideas are worth listening to. No, the film is not calling for the assassination of George W. Bush. The actual murder is seen only obscurely and never re-shown; certainly the movie does not revel in Bush’s demise, the way some of the film’s detractors (who haven’t seen it) assume it must. Bush’s fictional death turns out to be the result of his own Iraq policies, but while the movie is critical of Bush, it shows his death as leading to a worse fate: the ascendency of Dick Cheney to the Oval Office.

Much of what happens after Bush’s death is plausible given the administration’s real-life track record so far. If Bush were assassinated, Muslim names would indeed be the first ones the FBI looked at, and you can bet the Patriot Act would have some quick (some might say knee-jerk) new additions put into effect. Would our rush to judgment and the administration’s need for a scapegoat prevent true justice from being done? Maybe. The film is a neat little experiment and an alarming “what if?” scenario. I’m just glad it’s fiction, not prophecy.

B (1 hr., 30 min.; R, one F word, a couple violent images -- should be PG-13.)