When the shots are finally fired in Gabriel Range’s haunting television-style faux-documentary about the assassination of GW Bush, they seem too small to have such an impact—two red blossoms the size of pencil erasers gracing the president’s chest. Within seconds, the Chicago hotel site is on lockdown; within hours, Laura Bush is crumpled in a hospital hallway; and within weeks, the U.S. is threatening war against yet another Middle Eastern country.
Despite the audacious title and premise, Range doesn’t aim to shock, but to unnerve—particularly to rattle armchair assassins who wish there was such a quick fix to the mounting rage that intensifies every time we open a newspaper. Usually, we redirect our anger by the time it takes to say “President Cheney.”
Range adds more neutralizing words to this list, starting with “Patriot Act III”—his premise that things could always be worse (a grim truth). But rather than play out the havoc, Range busies himself with the back story of who fired the gun and why—a Miss Marple knot made exponentially more daunting by the sheer number of suspects and motives.
Range cobbles his movie together from actual footage of George and the gang, a tactic that gives his story an unnerving realism if one ignores the awkward proportions and lighting of the supporting actors digitally spliced into the backgrounds. As he interviews them all, the plot comes into focus: It’s October 19, 2007, and the secret service and Chicago police chief are nervous about the mob of protestors screaming and spitting behind the barricades of the president’s motorcade. In a prescient twist, they’ve been incensed by the administration’s misguided Clint Eastwood stance against North Korea after the ominous-sounding “Sea of Japan Incident.” (“Why can’t they have peaceful opinions?” the chief sighs, forgetting that it wasn’t peace that brought the mob to a boil).
Even if only a handful take their papier mâché effigies seriously—this strung-up figurehead of a man who’s only a figurehead himself, the film suggests—it’s still too many for beleaguered bodyguard Larry Stafford (Brian Boland), who urges his boss to skip the meet-and-greet after his speech to local businessmen, during which Bush makes charmingly mispronounced threats against the Korean Peninschula. No sooner have his speechwriter Eleanor and a journalist named Sam (Becky Ann Baker and Jay Patterson) dissected Dubya’s feigned Southern populism (the accent is fake, people—trust me, I’m a Texan), do the police barricades slip loose. As the officers make like Tommy Lee with their batons, hidden cameras record a radical leftist (Jay Whittaker) and a drug-addicted Iraq vet (Neko Parham) slipping through the fray toward the Sheraton, where they and others will be where the innocent claim was the wrong place at the wrong time, and the guilty call the chance of a lifetime. When word of the assassination breaks, the protestors applaud. No matter your politics, their hoots send chills down the spine.
Of course, the killing improves nothing. Freedoms are stripped, Muslims scapegoated (“It’s common sense racial profiling,” an FBI agent insists). But frustratingly, Range gets sucked into the murder’s specifics over its implications, and this exercise in provocation devolves into a Very Special Episode of CSI. Yet even at its most underdeveloped, as a lightening rod for conservatives and liberals—both of whom can exit the theater feeling unjustly maligned—this disarmingly open-ended little film is an important reminder that art is most worthwhile when it challenges, not confirms, the audience’s beliefs.
Death of a President. Written by Simon Finch and Gabriel Range. Directed by Gabriel Range. With Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Becky Ann Baker, Jay Patterson and Pay Whittaker. Select Theatres.