Death of a President, a fictional documentary covering the October 19, 2007 assassination of George W. Bush in Chicago, Illinois, premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival where it garnered the International Critics Prize.
Despite the fact that Death of a President captured a total of 6 awards, Newmarket Films, who paid one million dollars for the U.S. distribution rights, failed to sway Regal and Cinemark, two of the largest U.S. cinema chains, to screen the British film. CNN and National Public Radio refused to broadcast any ads. Thus, you probably never even heard of “the most controversial film of 2006.”
Although she had not bothered to see Death of a President, Hillary Clinton, then junior Senator from New York, was also quick to condemn it. “I think it’s despicable. I think it’s absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick.”
Now, we have Kim Jong-un, threatening cyber war over The Interview, as Sony briefly cancels its planned Christmas release, citing threats of violence by hackers who ironically call themselves the Guardians of Peace. The FBI and the White House both claim that North Korea is behind the initial computer hack waged against Sony Pictures, as well as the threats of 9/11 type retribution should Sony permit The Interview to play in theaters.
Senator John McCain called Sony’s decision to cancel the movie a “troubling precedent that will only empower and embolden bad actors to use cyber as an offensive weapon even more aggressively in the future.” But, I wonder what he said back in 2006 when roles were reversed.
The Bush assassination film is technically considered a docudrama while the Jong-un assassination film is categorized as a mockumentary, a comedy like Spinal Tap. Death of a President intends and succeeds to appear as a historic record of the events that led up to the October 19, 2007 sniper shooting in Chicago and what followed in the year thereafter. President Dick Cheney extends the powers of government surveillance with the passage of Patriot III, a Muslim is framed with the crime on weak evidence, hardly comedic. Because there are no immediately recognizable star actors in the cast, it presents with the look and feel of an authentic collection of news clips and interview footage. The film re-purposes archival footage of Bush and Cheney, along with historic photographs of the President, Photoshop-ed to include the film’s actors, interspersed with Chicago street scenes in which hundreds of extras effectively portray fierce anti-war protests and other fictional scenes staged by the filmmakers. And it works!
Critics who liked the film include Rex Reed of The New York Observer who called the film, “clever, thoughtful, and totally believable. This is a film without a political agenda that everyone should see.”
It was not the director’s intention to make a political film. As Gabriel Range explains, “The purpose of the film was not to imagine how the world stage would reset with the assassination of George Bush. The intent of the film is really to use the assassination of President Bush as a dramatic device—using the future as an allegory to comment on the past. If people go to the cinema expecting to have some great moment of catharsis watching the president being shot, I suspect they’re in for a pretty big surprise. I think that anyone who’s expecting this to be a liberal wet dream is in for quite a shock… It was very important that the film was not a political rant. It was not just a condemnation or polemic because I think that polemics are easy to dismiss.”
Peter Howell‘s review in the Toronto Star said, “The film’s deeper intentions… elevate it into the company of such landmark works of historical argument as Peter Watkins’s The War Game, Costa-Gavras’s Z and, closer to home, Michel Brault’s Les Ordres. Every thinking person should see Death of a President.”
I first discovered the film in 2006, a bootleg DVD among the wares of a Chinese street vendor. I bought it for less than a dollar and got my money’s worth. It wouldn’t load or play, but I have kept the dust jacket for all of these years since returning to America. I always wondered what the film was like and with Sony’s latest self-censorship, I was determined to discover what it was like in 2006, when the shoe was on the other foot.
You can rent or buy Death of a President on Amazon or on YouTube for as little as $2.99. Hulu streams it with commercials for free or watch it without commercials on Hulu Plus. It was a $2 million dollar production with a musical score by British musician Richard Harvey, that concludes with a surprising turnaround (no spoilers). It screened in the U.S. for only 14 days, showing at 143 theatres. The motion picture ethics committee in Japan prevented Death of a President from being shown in most cinemas there in 2007. Worldwide, it only grossed $869,352.
Regarding that other assassination film that we have yet to see, Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) has written President Barack Obama with the aim of getting the White House to screen The Interview just to prove that the US “will not bend to the will of bad actors.”
“The policy of rewarding terrorists, authoritarianism and cruelty with concessions should not be the legacy we pursue. Therefore, I ask that you host a screening of comedy film ‘The Interview’ for members of Congress in the White House the week of January 5, to be followed by a serious discussion of the strong, substantive retaliatory measures we plan to take as a nation against cyber attacks,” Vitter writes.
But the best response so far is that of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt who says that he’ll be starting his own production, a porn parody of The Interview.
“I’ve spent a lifetime fighting for the First Amendment, and no foreign dictator is going to take away my right to free speech,” Flynt told the Hollywood Reporter. “If Kim Jong-un and his henchmen were upset before, wait till they see the movie we’re going to make.”