"An unknown gunman assassinates George W. Bush." With those six words, the first line of a program description of Death Of A President for the Toronto Film Festival, a controversy was born that in many ways proved more interesting than the film itself. Sight unseen, the film has been derided as despicable (Hillary Clinton), inappropriate (Regal Cinemas CEO Mike Campbell, who has refused to book it), and even possibly illegal (Rush Limbaugh). The premise alone is a political litmus test: Is it morally acceptable to consider the assassination of a sitting president? Isn't this some sick left-wing fantasy come to life? Of course, actually seeing the movie helps sort out these sticky questions: Many of its fiercest detractors may be surprised to find that it's a far more sobering piece of speculative fiction than they might have imagined.
In fact, for the first two-thirds, the film's politics remain decidedly neutral, as it busies itself with the scrupulous details of how the assassination went down. Presented as a BBC-style documentary shot after the fact, D.O.A.P. cuts between fake talking heads and remarkably well-staged footage of the events leading up to the shooting. Visiting Chicago to give an address to supporters in the financial community, Bush is greeted by a particularly virulent group of protesters en route to the speech. As the protesters grow more unruly and a few slip past police barricades, security concerns are heightened around the president's centrally located hotel. And sure enough, when he steps outside to greet supporters, a gunman from one of the surrounding buildings fires the fatal shot.
First things first: Bush's death is treated, inarguably, as a national tragedy, so any worries that D.O.A.P. would amount to little more than art-porn for lefties are entirely unfounded. It's even a bit moving when Secret Service members, speechwriters, and aides get choked up when they talk about their feelings on that day. Though his film frets throughout about the erosion of civil liberties, director Gabriel Range doesn't really bring the hammer down until the official investigation begins and the killer's identity becomes politicized. The closing act loses much of the powerful verisimilitude of the events leading up to it, finally giving way to blunt ironies about the legacy of obfuscation that Bush leaves behind. Range comes about these issues in a provocative way, but they're still worth discussing, aren't they?