Political ideas almost always lead to interesting movies. Political agendas almost always don't. Put them together and you get Death of a President, a British-made drama, filmed like a documentary, that tells the story of the assassination of the current President George Bush one year from now.
This subject matter sounds far more incendiary than the film turns out to be. Directed and co-written by Gabriel Range, it's an absorbing procedural about the mechanics of 21st-century American life (the "a" of the title is important in this regard). Except for some historical footage, all of the people in the film are actors, and good ones: They sound very authentic in their interviews, articulate but unpolished, like the third take of an interview for a real documentary. The technology used to create illusions in a movie like this matters only when it's bad. Here, it's very good, except for a few fleeting moments where Bush's and Cheney's CGI lips seem to take on lives of their own.
Death of a President opens with the words, in Arabic, of a young Syrian woman living in America whose husband will later be arrested for the eponymous crime. She talks about freedom, and she chides those people of her native culture who say that America deserved the Sept. 11 attacks. "What does this do to your son's future?" she asks those who kill in the name of God. But of course, to religious and political fanatics, the only hope for the future is to fight the power.
It's certainly no accident that Range places the president in Chicago on the day of his death. The film's deftly staged, sharply edited footage of anti-Iraq War protesters echoes Chicago in '68. The shooting itself, from a tall building across the way, borrows from Dallas in '63, and the melee at the moment of the shooting recalls Washington, D.C. in '81. These touches give the film's fiction an eerie historic resonance.
Best of all in Death of a President is how Range systematically works through what might actually happen were the president to be shot. Everyone interviewed by the unseen documentarian seems sincere, and yet we can't help but wonder who's recasting the truth. Point of view is both important and intriguing in Range's skillfully directed film. It's largely what keeps our attention, even more so than the fabricated events around which the story revolves.
Is the film anti-Bush? Yes, of course it is. Why would anyone who's pro-Bush bother to make it? But there's still an impressive balance through most of it, until Range -- like many good filmmakers -- demonstrates that he doesn't know how to end his piece. His final 15 minutes are more agenda than idea, more politics than art. But until he tries too much and too hard, the film is a piquant reminder that we're living in very tense, very strange days indeed.