“Death of a President” misses its mark

What if President Bush was assassinated and no one could see it? That’s the controversy over “Death of a President,” Brit Gabriel Range’s fictional documentary of a future assassination. Hillary Clinton called it “despicable” without having actually, technically, you know, seen it. Major film chains have refused to carry the film, citing fears of copycat acts.

They shouldn’t have worried. Despite its bold title, “Death of a President” isn’t a snuff film for the C-SPAN set. The assassination itself is almost sedate – dull thudding noises, a bit of blood, and then we’re watching from outside the ambulance. Unfortunately, the tension that keeps the film running dies when Bush does.

The buildup to the killing rolls at breakneck speed. Bush is appearing in Chicago, again. Most of it is focused on the protests outside – supposedly angrier and more violent than the ones that dog the president on a regular basis. Ha.

Range makes some nifty drama out of the nitty-gritty particulars of life after the death. Dick Cheney assumes office. Some clever cinematic trickery shows him giving an address at Bush’s funeral – a speech filled with political double entendres praising the former leader’s “simplicity” and “cheerfulness.” President Cheney goes on to sign a new PATRIOT Act and flirts with invading Syria over faulty intelligence from eager dissidents.

These scenes are thrillingly plausible, and more such speculation might have made for a truly interesting future. For some reason, “Death of a President” instead turns into a whodunit that’s plausible, but not so thrilling. Like real television news, the movie manages to be sensational and dull at the same time. Once Range has killed his prey, he seems bored with the cleanup.

Various red herrings come forward and recede in mechanical order. A good deal of political commentary is thrown into the case – of course the Muslim immigrant who once attended an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan is the lead suspect – but it feels as obligatory as a civics class exercise.

The postmortem proceedings are enlivened, oddly enough, by the acting. While no real White House regulars are impersonated, Range inserts interviews with lower-level flunkies. There’s a Washington Post reporter (Jay Patterson), a Secret Service agent (Brian Boland, who gets the best line: “I look for that look that says, ‘I’m not a big fan of the President’), and a speechwriter (Becky Ann Baker) who consistently hits that weird mix of manipulation and earnestness familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a Political Communication class.

The true star of the film, presidents be damned, is James Urbaniak (best known as a foot fetishist on “Sex and the City”) as a doubt-stricken FBI officer. If he died, I would really want to know who the culprit was.

As it is, most would-be assassins will probably be disappointed to find that the death of the president is a fairly dull affair. It’s more of a love letter to film editing buffs than Bush-haters. If you’d like to get around the dictates of the major chains, you can see “Death of a President” at E Street Landmark Cinema. Whether it’s worth the trouble is another question.

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