Warning: This entire post is one big, fat spoiler–and I’m not just talking plot. If you really don’t want to know what Death of a President is like, stop reading now.
Just saw Death of a President on Google video. It’s been available there since October 15. And before anyone screams “piracy”, let me tell you that it isn’t–if anything, it will promote sales of the film, which got rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival last month. Why? Because Death is simply brilliant and well worth the money to see in theatres (assuming it gets the broad distribution it deserves), or, better still, buy on DVD. This is a dense, nuanced movie you will want to watch many, many times.
The concept of Death is simple: a fictional movie about the assassination of George W. Bush in October 2007. It is based on an event that not only hasn’t happened, but is highly unlikely to happen. It is made in documentary fashion, however, so it looks and feels entirely real. It uses actual news footage of Bush and members of his administration, combining it with fictional “interviews”, grainy images from security cameras, and plenty of other authentic-looking faux coverage. This innovative combination creates an effect as shocking as if we were watching the events of 9-11, recapitulated in a 90-minute news special. Thus it manages to avoid the pitfalls of traditional drama, which tends to dwell on the key moments while glossing over the inconvenient little details. And in Death, every least little detail counts–as we eventually learn the hard way. For in this movie, an innocent man is convicted on flimsy but seemingly persuasive evidence, while the assassin takes his crime to the grave before the law can catch up to him.
The film opens with several aerial views of Chicago, set to the voice of a Muslim woman speaking in Arabic, with English subtitles. She is, as we later learn, the wife of the man convicted of the shooting. What she says is the last thing we’d expect to hear, though. Far from applauding either 9-11 or the assassination of Bush, she condemns both as examples of “not thinking or seeing ahead”. And she says that if she could speak to the assassin, she would ask him what he was thinking when he pulled the trigger: “How couldn’t you think about the consequences of your actions? And what this would do to your son’s future? To America? To your country? Did you really not care?”
This opener is just the first of the film’s many surprises. Without a narrator to explain it to us, we are left to think the events through for ourselves–and to question everything we see and hear, even when the speaker seems well-meaning, genuine and sympathetic (or not). The conclusions we reach are not the ones we’ve been primed by the major media to expect, however. Everything we “know”, it turns out, is wrong.
In the film, some of those who are most shocked to be caught flat-footed are the ones you’d least expect to be mistaken–the head of the president’s security detail, for example. Or the president’s speechwriter. (The overconfident Bush, of course, doesn’t do anything you wouldn’t expect of him; he cockily blunders his way right into the deathtrap per pattern.) These authority figures don’t come off as draconian, though; they are all well-intentioned and easy to like on a plain human level, whether you agree with them or not. The police deputy’s face doesn’t harden immediately when he comes out with what he really feels: “I think there’s a new breed of anarchist. These are the people that have the mentality that anything goes, and it’s a sad fact but the only way to deal with this kind of individual is with brute force.”
It’s a chilling statement, but the dissenters he’s talking about almost live up to the harsh characterization. There are 12,000 of them–a small crowd, considering that most anti-Bush demos in major cities are at least ten times that size. Most look like the sloppy, fanatical young anarchists we’ve been told are The Enemy. And their enmity is not portrayed in a sympathetic light. We see their distorted faces in extreme, unflattering close-up as they yell slogans like “Chicago hates Bush!” or “No justice, no peace–fuck the police!” (Some even cheer at the news, later on, that Bush has been shot.) But as unappealing as they may seem, and as confrontational and defiant as they get when the riot police show up to beat on them, none of them turns out to be the killer. Even the one singled out early as a suspect, though he condemns Bush as a war criminal worthy of the death penalty and is just generally arrogant and snotty, is simply not the one. He turns out to be guilty of nothing more than demonstrating aggressively–and wanting to hang an anti-Bush banner.
It’s as hard to know exactly who shot J.R.–er, George W.–as it is to even realize at first that he’s been shot. We never get a clear view of Bush being hit. Things don’t slow down right as the shots ring out. The real-time speed of events shows restraint on the part of the filmmakers–an unwillingness to overdramatize what’s going on, which is already dramatic enough. It also adds to the atmosphere of general confusion. This lends it a great deal of verisimilitude. The viewer is caught off guard.
But even the forensics team is ultimately stumped, first by the abundance of forensic evidence, and later by the lack of anything definitive. The gun is soon found, but the serial number is missing and there are no legible fingerprints on it. Hundreds are detained–often on the flimsiest of “probable” causes–in an eerie echo of the very situation that took place after 9-11. One is a Yemeni-American whose father came on a visitor’s visa and simply decided to stay. Another is a black Iraq war veteran whose father also served–in Gulf War I. The secret serviceman in charge of security admits that “we looked at Islamic names first” when searching for suspects, but denies it was racial profiling. (In this he may have been telling the truth, since the cocky “anarchist”, the first suspect we actually see, is a 28-year-old white man.)
We get another eerie echo of post-9/11 events when a Syrian American, a legal immigrant who was once drafted into the Syrian military, is detained. A fraudulent Syrian “dissident” similar to Ahmed Chalabi makes the rounds of the news-talk shows with a wild tale about Bashar al-Assad and his supposed involvement. The Patriot Act undergoes a new mutation as a result, that makes it even more repressive and abusable than it already is.
Meanwhile, the funeral ceremony for Bush moves ahead. There is the black horse with the reversed riding boot in the stirrup; the fly-past in the “missing man” formation; the flag-draped casket on a gun carriage, escorted into the Capitol rotunda by a military honor guard. If all this looks like you’ve seen it before, you probably have–it is in fact the footage from the ceremony for Ronald Reagan. The eulogy Dick Cheney gives for Bush is an abbreviated version of the one he gave for Reagan, with the name of the deceased digitally altered to fit.
The scene then cuts from the speechwriter’s praise of Bush’s “moral commitment” and godliness to a downtown Chicago mosque, just as the muezzin calls the “Allahu Akbar”. This mosque, according to the secret serviceman, has a connection to a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. The Syrian suspect, Jamal Abu Zikri, attended this mosque, and has been to Pakistan. Is he the one? The FBI investigator seems to think so. And it turns out that Zikri has been to the terrorist camp, but he chickened out when he found out what he was supposed to do as a “defender” of Islam. Nevertheless, Zikri is tried and found guilty, to the dismay of his wife Zahara–the woman whose voice is heard in the opening scenes of the film, talking about how she cried over 9-11 and wishes she could speak to the assassin.
Meanwhile, the FBI investigator has his doubts–he talks of the pressure to perform, and how the lab fitted the results to suit the hypothesis of guilt, rather than the other way around. He resigns in protest. And even the secret serviceman admits he was wrong in his early assumptions. Zikri is not guilty–but he doesn’t even have leave to appeal, under Patriot III–the act that supposedly empowers the authorities with more “tools” to investigate. The flawed investigation that results, however, throws doubt onto Patriot III’s usefulness as an investigative aid. It seems all the act does is remove the obligation to give every suspect due process.
Then the story shifts to another suspect–Casey Claybon, the black soldier newly returned from Iraq. Casey is disillusioned and bereaved–his brother David, also a soldier in Iraq, died when his Humvee flipped on the road near Mosul. Casey has had marital trouble and drug problems; the day of the assassination, he was in Chicago looking for work–and a fix. Casey is detained as a suspect, then released. As soon as he is let go a few days later, he calls his mother–who is terribly upset and in tears. His father–a decorated major who served in Gulf War I–has been found in his car, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Casey suspects that it’s because he never got over David’s death. But the suicide note hints at something more complicating: “…there is no honor in dying for an immoral cause. For lies. I love my country, but I love God and the sons he gave me even more. I must do the right thing by you and by David. George Bush killed our David and I cannot forgive him that.”
Casey’s mother cannot believe her husband did it, and the authorities are quick to assure Casey that his father wasn’t their man. But it turns out that Aloysius Claybon was in possession of a detailed map of Bush’s movements that day–the exact motorcade route and security arrangements, right down to the letter. Casey comes forward with the truth, hoping to set the innocent man free, but in the end, Zikri is still in prison, unable to appeal–and the identity of whoever furnished Aloysius Claybon with the documents remains a mystery. Meanwhile, chillingly, Patriot III is now permanent law.
Much fuss has been made about Death, most of it by right-wing Bushniks who are more than happy to condemn the film sight unseen. They haven’t watched it, and by god, they don’t want you to watch it, either. They claim that it sends a dangerous message, and that the terrorists will win if you see it. That’s their loss. It shouldn’t be yours, though. The message it sends is indeed dangerous, but not to America; on the contrary, it strikes a blow against the notion that arbitrary measures which grant inordinate power to the president will ever protect anyone–even himself–against terrorism. Thus, it harks back to what Ben Franklin once wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack:
“Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.”
Which, come to think of it, is a message very dangerous to the right-wing view of the world–indeed, perhaps the most dangerous one of all, since it undermines everything the Right is about.
No wonder they don’t want you to see this movie.