Bright Lights Film Journal

Death of a President: The Last Temptation of Anti-Bush Critics

“Where many people watch a film for a true or faithful rendition of an historical event, I needed confirmation that the thing I was viewing was . . . made up!”

Presidential assassinations are a staple of Hollywood action films, recently seen in Vantage Point (2008), a film we will return to later. None, however, goes to the extremes of Death of a President (2006), in which George W. Bush — not an actor playing George W. Bush — is assassinated by rifle fire in Chicago.

Both Republican and Democratic Party reactions to A Death of a President were predictable if not similar: a matter of “bad taste,” or “despicable,” or “that anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick.” Theaters threatened not to screen it. Advertising was refused. Republicans probably considered the film a form of liberal wish-fulfillment — and that particular feeling would have been realized, to an extent, had they watched the entire film, because the assassin is responding to his son being killed in Iraq. Yet the film’s liberal wish-fulfillment is cut short when Bush is succeeded by Cheney, who initiates a third Patriot Act!

However, pro-Bush people wouldn’t watch Bush get shot or would not have viewed the entire film, thus their reactions are based on a film unseen, just as Christian organizations responded to, and boycotted, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Unlike many defenders of Death or Temptation, I am not put off by “film unseen” criticism, responses that are valid to the extent that we generally act upon impressions and limited knowledge to nearly everything, especially movies. For example, I don’t want to see a Mel Gibson or Barbra Streisand film and can live with myself (the difference is that I’m not asking anyone else not to see their films).

Thanks to the uproar over Death of a President‘s major if not brilliant conceit of using the real president while in office, I eventually watched the film (on DVD) as a curiosity and with a few questions: Were the fears and criticism justified? How would the film’s director Gabriel Range (whose work is limited to a couple of mockumentaries and a television docudrama about the Menendez Brothers) pull it off? I didn’t expect to sit through it.

The film took the form of a television documentary examining the investigation into President Bush’s assassination. Former Bush administration officials were interviewed, as well as doctors and scientists associated with the investigation. For the first twenty to thirty minutes, knowing it was a fictional film, I started to “believe” what I was seeing. By “believing what I was seeing,” I mean to say that, upon not recognizing any of the actors, I was becoming unsure that the people being interviewed weren’t actually who they said they were. Finally, two interviewees in consecutive scenes appeared whom I knew from television appearances on Law and Order: Criminal Intent. One of them, James Urbaniak, I had seen in several other series usually playing strange characters (like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles in 2008), and whose face always reminded me of Andy Robinson’s Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry (1971). Where many people watch a film for a true or faithful rendition of an historical event, I needed confirmation that the thing I was viewing was . . . made up! Finally, I had something to hang onto.

As the film progressed and Bush is finally shot (dying later in the hospital), it became an intensely interesting mystery, a whodunit with incredibly high stakes. The dramatic representation of the assassination and its investigation was remaking the political thriller genre (as had Z in 1969 and JFK in 1991). Fred Zinnemann’s Day of the Jackal (1973) anticipated the use of the real man as the target, but Jackal forgot one thing: killing de Gaulle. As it happened, our knowledge that de Gaulle couldn’t be killed left the drama and tension unhampered. Tarantino would throw out the rules observed in Jackal and The Eagle Has Landed (1976) and kill Hitler, Goring, and Goebbels in Inglorious Basterds (2009).

Around this time (late February 2008), I had seen Vantage Point, a distinctly predictable thriller that telegraphed its unpredictability. Its tagline, “8 Strangers. 8 Points of View. 1 Truth,” reveals its ultimate pretension: to be a Rashomon-like mystery. I should note that Death‘s tag line was “Do not rush to judge,” which comes closer to the ethos of Kurosawa’s 1950 classic than “1 Truth.” For one thing, Rashomon distinctly portrays the truth as multiple. The mass audience to whom Vantage Point aspired wants one unequivocal answer. Put another way, the mystery of Rashomon is concocted around four contradictory narratives, which refracts the truth toward the teller’s bias, hubris, or shame. There will be no final answer for the viewer. Vantage Point needs to guide the viewers toward solving the mystery. The audience goes home satisfied or unsatisfied at the conclusion, but are distinctly left intact (titillated but unaffected) by the experience.

My interest in Vantage Point, however, revolves more around its use of the president of the United States, in this case the fictional William Ashton, played by William Hurt. Many actors have given excellent portrayals of contemporary presidents: William Devane as John Kennedy (with Martin Sheen as his brother, Robert; Sheen played JFK in an 1983 miniseries) in The Missiles of October; Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940); Anthony Hopkins in Nixon; Will Farrell as George W. Bush and Dana Carvey as George H. W. Bush on Saturday Night Live. Then there are presidents, assassinated or not, fictional or not, good men or not, who have been played convincingly by dozens of actors such that, at times, we would have wanted them to be our president; Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe (1964); Michael Douglas in The American President (1995): Martin Sheen in The West Wing (1999-2006); Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996); and Harrison Ford in Air Force One (1997).

(The president playing himself has not happened. However, people playing themselves seems to be happening more and more. Bruce Willis, for instance, plays “himself” in Ocean’s Twelve (2004), but, in a fictional film, with Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis. More to the point would be Audie Murphy playing himself in To Hell and Back (1955) or Mohammad Ali in The Greatest (1977). And perhaps as groundbreaking as George W. Bush’s assassination in Death of a President is John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich (1999).)

Seeing George W. Bush get shot as he enters his car in downtown Chicago, and then get reports that he has died, has permanently affected how I’ll view portrayals of current and recent (still living) presidents in movies or on television. Despite eventually knowing for certain that all the elements of Death of a President were fictional, I realized immediately that my early gullibility was connected to the film’s use of the real George W. Bush. When I had watched Vantage Point, on the other hand, I was kept at a distance from the drama and the stakes in the drama because I knew William Ashton was not the president of the U.S. Just as I could not watch Ali (2001), with Will Smith. It was always Will Smith as Ali or, more recently, Josh Brolin as W. In Death of a President, George W. Bush is W.

Neal Gabler, in his book Life, the Movie, refers to the president as the Entertainer-in-Chief. The book appeared before the Obama presidency, in which Obama has made himself available to shows like The View, Jay Leno, Mythbusters, Jeopardy, and so on, becoming the epitome of what Gabler described. The logical outcome of more television- and movie-friendly presidents may be that when films need a current or recent president, part of his or her constitutional duties will be to appear in those films. Using a double might be a useful compromise, considering the effective uses of Margaret Thatcher in For Your Eyes Only (1981) and of the Winston Churchill double as the target killed by Michael Caine in The Eagle Has Landed.

Brolin as Bush in W. (2008) recalls Anthony Hopkins in Nixon (1995). I never thought I would accept Hopkins’ portrayal, and it took an hour and a half before I could, but I did. I can’t say the same for Paul Sorvino’s Kissinger. I realize now that Stone should have used the real Kissinger or, more likely, given the level of potential uncooperativeness, used him but never showed him (as was done with Christ in Ben-Hur (1959) and other pre-King of Kings (1961) religious epics — the wisdom of this being that it’s an innate distraction). Stone should, in fact, have used the real Bush in W., as well H. W. There’s something about W.’s vibe that suggests an openness to such possibilities — just keep that sourpuss Karl Rove out of the room during the negotiations. Perhaps, the real W. could have tried to gain control of his image and historical legacy this way, playing himself, rather than authoring a “chloroform-in-print” autobiography á la Bill Clinton, who should have muscled his way into being cast as “Jack Stanton” in Primary Colors (1998).

My call for casting the president in movies or television also has educational value. Let’s face it, our children are becoming part of “the dumbest generation.” They will become more and more confused by seeing dozens of fictional presidents. In an episode of Psyche (2006-present), Sean (James Roday) keeps referring to President Shepherd, Michael Douglas’ character in An American President (1995). His buddy Gus (Dulé Hill) has to keep reminding Sean that Shepherd wasn’t really a president. Hill, as it happened, played a secret service guard for President Bartlet in West Wing. And how many people believe, after seven seasons and eternal reruns of West Wing, that a president should act and feel just like President Bartlet?

While watching Death of a President I was also bothered by another aspect of an assassination of a president in the 21st century. I had mentioned the conservatives’ fears about Death being wish-fulfillment for liberals. Realistically, Bush’s assassination would have been the worst thing that could have happened. His continued low ratings paved the way for Obama to win the presidency and the Democrats to decisively control the Congress. Bush’s death would have ushered in Dick Cheney and, I don’t doubt, martial law.

My personal trepidation, though, concerns the fourth branch of government, the news media. Can anyone imagine the response, in our time, to a successful presidential assassination? Take as your sample of potential reaction: the O. J. arrest and trial (the chase in the Bronco held the nation captive), then the Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson deaths. Now combine these and take the media’s response to the tenth power and you might have an inkling of the situation. Something I did not see, or saw only a glimmer of, in Death. After the hyper-realism of the film’s premise, I thought a depiction of an insane news media response (including a miniseries on the assassination) would have been appropriate.