TORONTO -- Five years after 9-11, it's apparent that we all aren't getting along. And the political left is throwing plenty of mean punches. A case in point is that new Bush snuff movie, "Death of a President." Some might say that "snuff movie" is too strong a term -- but how else to describe a movie that clearly revels in the prospect of George W. Bush's being assassinated?
Anyone who doubts that movies still have the power to stir up passions ought to come here, to the Toronto International Film Festival, which rates as the most important movie conclave in North America. The festival has taken control of this city; thousands of out-of-town VIPs, and self-declared VIPs, have brought with them legions of flunkies and fleets of limousines -- I have seen Lincoln Town Cars cruising around with California license plates. Some have been animated by greed; there's lots of movie-distribution-dealing going on at the Sutton Place and the Four Seasons. Others are motivated by glamour, however vicarious; everyone here has a tale of seeing Brad Pitt, or of almost seeing him, or at least of standing in the same place where he once stood.
Another hot passion is politics. Movies have always been political, but in polarizing times, the politicization is all the more obvious, even murderous. A case in point is "Death of a President," easily the most buzzed-about movie here. Actually, true buzzsters call it "D.O.A.P." -- pronounced, of course, "dope." Get it?
"Death" is a pseudo-documentary that purports to show what happens to America in the year after President George W. Bush is assassinated on October 19, 2020 (stock market nerds might note that 10/19/07 is the 20th anniversary of the 500-point stock market crash, for whatever symbolism that's worth).
A few points about the movie: First, it has a "big" look. As film-society types would say, "Death" is fluent in cinematic language; it brings one into the action, it's well paced, the music enhances the mood. Interestingly, the film was made for a mere $2 million; if so, such a large movie on such a small budget could only be possible for an offshoot of a big network, such as More4. The parent company, Channel 4, used its own deep resources to acquire archival footage and to help out on the slick special optical effects. So "Death" looks like a theatrical release, not a made-for-TVer.
Of course, it also helps that so many Britons were eager to help out on this project. It's no secret that the chattering film-making classes are vehemently anti-Bush and anti-Tony Blair (Blair hasn't yet been shot on film, but he's been done in, politically, by the left in the UK, not the right). And so a film such as "Death" -- which begs comparison to the BBC's equally anti-Blair/anti-Bush movie from 2005, "The Power of Nightmares," -- is obviously a labor of love intended to win peer-group awards, as well as box-office receipts.
And there might be more motivation than that. In the 12th century, King Henry II grew distinctly weary of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket. "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?" Henry asked, and the next thing he knew, four loyal knights did just the ridding Henry was hoping for. Now fast-forward nine centuries: Is it really all that hard to believe that the "Death" filmmakers hope that somebody gets a "bright idea" to rid the world of a troublesome president?
Certainly, in the film's telling, Bush deserves a nasty fate. "Death" spins a scenario of rising anti-Iraq war protests in the US, in which the protestors become European in their intensity, complete with masks, semi-uniforms, even body armor. Amidst this white-hot streetscape, Bush delivers a speech in downtown Chicago. The US Secret Service is nervous about the high tension in the city -- but not nervous enough. Bush is shot and killed by a sniper.
Newly sworn-in President Cheney delivers a eulogy of his predecessor; it's a techno-tour de force, thanks to computers. And then, of course, the descent into Dick's abyss: The "Patriot 3" act is signed into law, free speech effectively outlawed.
Meanwhile, President Cheney orders the US government to "go after" Syria. The moviemakers emphasize what they see as an obvious and ominous similarity between Cheney's targeting of Syria in 2007 and Bush's targeting of Iraq -- not Afghanistan -- not long after 9-11. Conveniently, a Syrian-American is arrested and charged with the crime. The man is a dubious character, having spent time in Afghanistan, but, the film argues, a pattern of suspicious behavior is not the same as murderous behavior. Various faux forensic experts come forward on camera to challenge the evidence against the Syrian; the movie drags here, becoming almost a laboratory-courtroom drama. But legal procedure is clearly near and dear to the filmmakers; in the question-and-answer session after the showing, producer Simon Finch declared that the "danger of a rush to judgment" was the principal message of the picture. Cheney and Americans might show "impatience with legal machinery," Finch said, but the rest of us should remember the importance of rights-based proceduralism. Audiences are then free to insert their own suitably negative thoughts about Guantanamo, rendition, wiretapping, or any other aspect of the Bush homeland security program.
As David D'Arcy, film critic for Greencine.com, observed to me afterward, "The filmmakers see this as the new America. This film is their delivery vehicle, consolidating all their concerns about 9-11." OK, fair enough -- the flick represents their point of view. For another POV, there's "The Path to 9-11," the ABC drama that has generated its own ruckus, as various sides sought to write, edit, and then re-edit the historical record to meet their specific wants and needs. Nine-eleven is many things, but by now it can also be considered a full-fledged political football, to be tossed and dropkicked like any other historical event.
But returning to "Death", here comes the twist in the tale (Warning! Spoiler dead ahead!):
The Syrian is convicted and sent to death row. But then comes a strange piece of revelation: It turns out that a black American, a US Army veteran, is the real killer. The African American had fought with distinction in the 1991 Gulf War, but when his own son is killed in Iraq during the current fighting, he snaps. He kills Bush with his rifle, flees the scene, and then, in a secluded location, kills himself, leaving a note and enough evidence to convince all but the closed-minded that he committed the crime. The film, of course, suggests that the black man was justified -- partially, if not fully -- in what he did. As the man's wife explains, "He loved the Army, proud of serving America...He felt that Bush destroyed all of that." So the cosmology -- make that demonology -- of the film is clear: Bush is so bad that even a loyal patriotic man is driven to kill the president. But the Cheney-ized feds aren't interested in this inconvenient truth, because they are intent on blaming the Syrian, and Syria.
And of course, the filmmakers, too, have a predetermined target: Bush. As producer Finch put it, "We would really engage people" by killing President George W. Bush onscreen, as opposed to just President John Q. Public.
Finch is right: When trying to drive home a point, it's always best to use specific images and proper nouns, if possible. Be vivid and lurid, that's the ticket. As vivid as the blood flowing from Bush's chest, and as lurid as the headlines that "Death" has already generated.
So for the next number, I suppose that Finch and his close colleague, director Gabriel Range, will make an even more vivid and lurid movie. How 'bout, say, a movie featuring the Prophet Mohammed doing something, well, unspeakable? Or maybe just showing him as an ordinary human, doing ordinary things? Such a picture would get some buzz, stir up some controversy -- wouldn't it?
But I won't hold my breath waiting for that hypothetical Islam-bashing, or even Islam-historicizing, film to be made or shown. As we have seen, there's plenty of evidence that the "Death"-men, Finch and Range, are cine-provocateurs, happy enough to see Bush endangered. But there's no evidence that either man wishes to see his own life endangered.
Finch and Range know that vast majority of Americans won't like this film; even as they hope that a small minority of Americans will make it profitable for them. To make money, and to make a splash, they are willing to hurt American feelings. But hurting the feelings of Muslims who might kill them in retaliation? That's a different story. That's a movie that will never be made, at least not by these two. These blokes might be cool with murder, but they are definitely against suicide.
James Pinkerton is the TCS Daily media critic.