Four presidents have been killed in office: the two you hear about (Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy) and the two you kind of don't (James A. Garfield and William McKinley). But any time a political figure meets a violent death, post-traumatic stress can echo through generations — particularly because Hollywood is so fond of assassination cinema. Oliver Stone's JFK is the most exhaustive example but certainly not the first; John Wilkes Booth pops up in 1915's Birth of a Nation.
You don't even have to be president to get your own assassination narrative (see: this fall's Bobby) or be a successful target, for that matter. The Assassination of Richard Nixon spun would-be Tricky Dick killer Samuel Byck into a Travis Bickle–by–way–of–Sept. 11 man with a twisted take on the American dream. Fictitious films like Nashville and The Manchurian Candidate also pick up the assassination thread; Taxi Driver went one further by actually inspiring John Hinckley Jr. to take aim at Ronald Reagan.
Images of Reagan's shooting outside the Washington, DC, Hilton clearly influenced Gabriel Range's made-for-British-television mock doc Death of a President, by my count the first to imagine the death of a sitting president. The murder takes place Oct. 19, 2007, outside a Chicago hotel surrounded by angry antiwar protesters. Actors playing secret service agents, speechwriters, and sundry witnesses recall their experiences; the events themselves unfold via staged and real footage, some massaged with special effects to make the holy shit! moment as authentic as possible.
But the holy shit! is what you expect — and once Death of a President segues into the President Dick Cheney era, it assumes the far less salacious task of exposing post-9/11 America's darker corners. A Muslim man is nabbed for the crime; his home country of Syria is taken to task as the FBI scrambles to make a motive out of terrorism. PATRIOT Act Three is passed. Civil liberties become even more restricted. But is the suspect really the killer? Is he a patsy? Or is he guilty only of wrong time, wrong place, wrong race?
In many ways, Death of a President resembles The Confederate States of America — a fake TV doc beamed from a reality where the South won the Civil War — rather than its assassination-obsessed cinematic predecessors. This, despite all the controversy surrounding the film's sensational suggestion that someone might think the world a better place with Bush in the grave. Ultimately, Range is more interested in using Bush's untimely death as a way to address issues that already exist in 2006, notably the lose-lose repercussions of a hopeless, never-ending Iraq war. Alas, there’s nothing shocking about that. SFBG
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT
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