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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Death of a President: (2006, ***)

THE TWO MOST STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL SENTENCES OF THE WEEK were likely penned by a lawyer: “This film is fictional. It is set in the future.” Coming at the end of British director Gabriel Range’s Death of a President (co-written by Simon Finch), about an aftermath of authoritarian opportunism when President Bush is killed while politicking in Chicago in October 2007, this disclaimer suits Range’s neatly arrayed paranoid prognostications, which, of course, are trumped by reality each and every present day. (“Habeas Corpus”? What’s that?) How would a patriot act after the death of a president? range_32.jpgBy destroying every last vestige of civil liberties and anointing themselves saviors; by committing all manner of craven cover-up and pitiful power grab, DOAP suggests, and in the director’s own words, a metaphor for what came after 9/11. Range’s use of Chicago topography (and footage drawn from several Bush visits to the city) in his neo-doc (or “retrospective documentary” style, in his words) is astute, as is the examination and reexamination of “surveillance” footage in the fictional dissection of whodunit. Haskell Wexler‘s Medium Cool is an obvious antecedent for this style of speculative fiction, as are Peter Watkins’ post-nuclear scenario, The War Game (which won the 1965 Best Documentary Oscar) and Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here, and while DOAP proposes the existential quandary of a fear of “terrorists” dictating entirely the course of a country’s decisions, the film’s follow-through, while compelling, never reaches the heights of irresponsibility attained by numberless politicians and business leaders. Of Nazism, and by extension, any vast, complex horror, George Steiner wrote of the “sheer incapacity of the ‘normal’ mind to imagine and hence give active belief to the enormities of the circumstance.” Range does yeoman’s work in capturing circumstance, but he cannot run as fast as a contemporary headline ticker. In a director’s statement, Range writes: “While the premise… is certainly an incendiary one, as a metaphor for 9/11 it must by necessity be unspeakably horrific. And history teaches us that there is nothing that can have a more convulsive impact on America than the assassination of a President. I have always known that I would be condemned for the very idea of this film, but I believe that sometimes it is not only acceptable for art to be outrageous—it is necessary. We live in a time of incredible fear… The advance condemnation… by politicians and pundits who have not seen—and may never see—this film reflects the landscape of fear in which we live today, and which my film attempts to address.

What disturbs me most about what is happening today is the complacency. Terrible things happen and there is a lack of remark. It is my belief that this complacency is largely due to the way the media presents events. As a longtime TV journalist myself, I am very attuned to this… What I wanted to do with this film was offer another perspective on what’s happened in the last five years, and look at how the war on terror, and the invasion of Iraq is changing America.” With Becky Ann Baker, Brian Boland, Michael Reilly Burke, Neko Parham and James Urbaniak (Henry Fool), marvelously dry as a forensics tech who will not tailor the facts. Richard Harvey’s dour score is a plus. You can view the first six minutes at this link. Major theater chains chose to demonstrate their conservatism by not booking the essentially liberties-concerned film: it opens Friday in about 80 largely independent locations including Chicago’s Music Box; the Arclight in Los Angeles; Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas; Cambridge’s Kendall Square; the Brooklyn Heights Twin; Houston; Detroit; Petaluma; Encino; Portland; Pittsburgh; San Antonio; San Francisco; San Jose; San Rafael; Santa Monica; Missoula; Key West; Tuscaloosa; Seattle; Wilder, Kentucky and Nitro, West Virginia. [Ray Pride]

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