Mock documentaries, or mockumentaries, or are nothing new. Most are played for laughs—Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Take the Money and Run to name a few—but occasionally the genre offers up something a little more somber. Punishment Park, a 1971 film by British director Peter Watkins showed concentration camps on American soil and the brutal hunting of activists, dissidents and persons declared a “risk to national security.” The Blair Witch Project was so convincing that early audiences couldn’t figure out if it was a horror film or a horrific capturing of real events. Both films were controversial, and both kept pundits busy for months discussing their merits.
The most recent mockumentary to hit the theatres, Death of a President, has the most provocative title of any movie this year, and became a hot news story during the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Like so many controversial films before it, the movie became a news story before anyone had seen it. If they had, I’m not so sure it would have been deemed so buzz-worthy.
Brit director Gabriel Range asks the question, what would happen if George W. Bush was assassinated while still in office? Using nonfiction techniques to shine a light on current social and political issues he expertly blends archival footage with dramatized scenes to imagine a scenario in which the FBI leap to judgment, utilizing the Patriot Act Mach 3 to railroad a Muslim suspect onto death row for the murder of the president.
The aftershock of the assassination is portrayed quite convincingly—Range began his filmmaking career as a television journalist for Reuters, so he knows how to piece together a doc—but the film, apart from its central premise of killing a real-life president, doesn’t raise any issues that haven’t already been discussed on Meet the Press many times. The idea that in the post 9/11 world people are arrested on flimsy evidence and held with out charges isn’t a new one, nor is the rush-to-judgment scenario. In there somewhere are compelling arguments about the rights of individuals whose civil liberties are being violated, but nothing in the film is as interesting or attention grabbing as its title.
Death of a President takes a bold idea, drapes it in technical virtuosity, but ultimately is a triumph of editing rather than a peek into a frightening future. The future described in the movie is now and the scariest and most sobering idea in the film can be summed up in two words—President Cheney.