Call me John Ashcroft, but it's hard to believe that watching The Death of a President isn't against the law. Of course, you have to admire a country where it isn't against the law... yet. British director Gabriel Range has performed an amazing act of media manipulation, melding real and fake news footage into a pseudo-documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush. We're supposedly watching the documentary in 2008, the year after Bush, during a meet-and-greet outside the hotel where he'd just delivered a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, was shot in the chest by an assailant who eluded the Secret Service. To get that scene, Range doctored footage of the actual Bush working the ropeline after delivering a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Actually, it's often very difficult to tell where history ends and Range's slightly more Orwellian vision of the future begins, so seamlessly does he mesh the two. And the Orwellian vision seems all too plausible. Without an Oswald to serve as patsy, the hunt for the assassin quickly lands on a Syrian expatriate who'd spent time in an Afghan training camp. Syria itself becomes a target, and another round of Patriot Act security measures starts zipping its way through Congress. Range is clearly more interested in the aftermath than in the death of the president. And he seems to be drawing a contrast between the Kennedy assassination, which led to an iffy lone-gunman theory, and the Bush assassination, which leads to an equally iffy network-of-terror theory. Do we ever get to know the truth?
Perhaps not. And although The Death of a President is paranoia-inducing, it's also enlightening, a reminder of how bad things could get - i.e., how bad they already are. Range has taken a fair amount of heat for assassinating a sitting president. Both CNN and Fox have refused to run ads for the film, and a few theater chains have refused to screen it. So let's hear it for the Orpheum Theatre, which has summoned up the courage to imagine - "imagine" being the key word here - a life after George W. Bush. President Cheney, anyone?