Death of a President depicts imagined assassination of President George W. BushJames Pinkerton of Tech Central Station went all the way up to Toronto for the city’s annual film festival this year, and he has brought back an excellent article on one of the most vivid manifestations of Bush hatred seen so far, the film The Death of a President. In an article appropriately and only slightly hyperbolically titled "Snuff Cinema," Pinkerton writes:

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? . . .

"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, 2007 (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.

Pinkerton sees extremely sinister motives at work here: 

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?

I have no reason to think that the film is an open call to action, but certainly on the symbolic, wish-fulfillment level it is a manifestation of a truly appalling level of hatred, well beyond even what President Clinton’s most fevered opponents dared to express during the 1990s, and was made by a national television network, no less.

After the imagined murder of President Bush, the film posits an authoritian regime imposed by his sinister successor, current U.S. vice president Richard Cheney, whose administration promptly blames a Syrian-American for the murder and decides to invade Syria.  (Just like real life!)

But the Syrian-American, although full of hatred, is not the killer, of course. [Note: plot spoiler ahead!] An African-American veteran of the 1991 Gulf War whose son was killed in the current War in Iraq is the real killer. And the film affirms the assassin’s decision, Pinkerton writes:

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.

The interesting angle here is that unlike many dramatic films about politics, this one depicts a real, living U.S. President currently serving in office (even superimposing Bush’s face on an actor’s body, through a cgi effect), when it would have been perfectly simple to provide a fig leaf by fictionalizing the President by at least giving him a different name. But they deliberately chose not to do that, in order to target Bush directly. Pinkerton writes:

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.

Finally, Pinkerton points out that the film is not intended to reach a big audience but only to inflame further the passions of anti-Bush fanatics: 

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.

The great irony, of course, is the idea that America is a heartbeat away from authoritarianism—when our domestic hatred of the sitting President is so open, unhinged, and accepted that even an endeavor such as this is already receiving spirited defenses in the media.