Death of a President (UK - DVD R2)
Our own Scott McKenzie takes a look at this recent and controversial docudrama
Death of a President is a docudrama set in the near future, telling a retrospective account of the assassination of President George W Bush on October 19th 2007. Bush is visiting Chicago to make a speech about the economy and North Korea when his motorcade runs into a group of 12,000 protestors. Members of the angry mob manage to break free of the police cordon and attempt to reach the presidential vehicle, which quickly takes a detour to reach its destination before the situation turns uglier.
Following his speech, the president meets a group of friendlier members of the public but just as he is about to leave the scene, he is shot twice in the chest. The secret service bundle him into his limousine and run him to hospital where, following surgery, he passes away. The focus of the film then turns to the investigation into the murder and the personal, economic, political and social impact of the death of the 43rd president of the USA.
It’s difficult to talk about Death of a President without addressing the controversy that has surrounded it. It has been accused of being anti-Bush and opportunistic, feeding on the growing fears of US activity in Iraq and Afghanistan to promote a political agenda. I do not subscribe to this opinion. This film is an attempt to tell a fictional story in a believable way and the documentary style works perfectly because the audience are presented with a format that is recognisable by conventions that are identifiable with non-fictional films.
Interviews, archive news footage and original footage are all edited together almost perfectly to place recognisable characters in situations created by the filmmakers. The only shots that take the viewer out of the film are when the actors are digitally integrated with archive footage. These shots don’t always look quite right but they are few and far between and are the only events that reflect the low budget of a film that is as expertly crafted as it is ambitious.
The biggest surprise I had while watching Death of a President was how compelling the story is. Once you know the title of the film, you know what’s coming but the filmmakers create an uneasy atmosphere and employ some techniques more akin to a thriller in the events leading up to Bush’s assassination. As the story progressed and I became increasingly gripped by the investigation, the political sentiment mattered less to me. The presence of George Bush was key to the film, but the fact that he was the president was almost incidental. Death of a President is a unique combination of genres: a thriller told in a documentary style with a structure that will be recognisable to anyone who has watched murder-mystery TV specials.
For this reason, Death of a President is similar in style to Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. With no narrator to guide the viewer, we are forced to piece the pieces together ourselves with the evidence we are presented with and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep us guessing. Though certainly not made in a way that defends the policies of President Bush, Death of a President makes far less of an overt political statement than other recent documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and is all the more compelling and believable because of it.
The piecemeal approach of constructing Death of a President is most obvious in the quality of the picture. Quickly cutting between different image sources, the video quality intentionally varies widely, even including original footage filmed on mobile phones to reflect the current trend in news reporting of broadcasting clips filmed by members of the public.
For this reason it is difficult to assess the overall standard because it is not clear how much of the pixilation, grain, edge enhancement and colour bleeding comes from the source material or is a product of post-production techniques. That said, these artefacts occur significantly less in the clips of scripted interviews and in general the 16x9 anamorphic picture does the job adequately.
For a film that imitates a style suited best to the small screen and not recognised for heavy use of directional sound, it is no surprise that the soundtrack of Death of a President is acceptable but, through not fault of its own, is never outstanding. The score sets the tone very well through the rear speakers but never drowns out the constant dialogue from the front. Given that this film is hot off press, it’s also no surprise that there is not noticeable interference on the audio track.
The commentary track with the filmmakers is filled with many interesting details about the film and the political fall-out from it. The director, Gabriel Range, comments that while some have accused Death of a President of being anti-Bush, others have accused it of not being anti-Bush enough. Along with the producers and editor, Range points out many of the points in the film where archive news footage was stitched together with the footage they filmed, in particular moments where extras were hired that were spitting images of real people who were shaking hands with the president.
The interviews with the filmmakers cover similar ground to their commentary and serves as a taster for the talk track. Finally, a short trailer for the US theatrical release is included to round out the extras.
I was expecting Death of a President to be a sober experience but I was very impressed by the filmmakers’ ability to create a wholly believable future-retrospective and the original story kept me gripped from beginning to end. The film is essential viewing and is complemented by a set of extras that provide good insight into the clever way it was put together.
Review by Scott McKenzie
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 30th October 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: Filmmakers' Commentary, Interviews With Filmmakers, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Gabriel Range
Cast: Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Becky Ann Baker, Jay Patterson, Jay Whittaker
Genre: Documentary and Thriller
Length: 92 minutes
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