Assassinating George Bush: The Flick
The scene in "D.O.A.P" where George W. Bush is assassinated
In Defense of “D.O.A.P.”
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, September 13, 2006
The movie that pretends to be historically accurate but makes up events that never happened is by far more repugnant than any movie set in the future that imagines events unlikely ever to happen — even if those events include the assassination of George W. Bush. But it’s been telling of the hypocritically muggy air of reactionary America to see how conservatives have defended the bogus storytelling and war porn of ABC television’s “Path to 9/11” while furiously attacking the mere making of “Death of a President,” the British film by Gabriel Range that renders in documentary style the (obviously fictional) assassination of President Bush a year from now.
The criticism naturally includes the idiotic and the puerile, coming as it usually does from people who have not seen the film, but who wear faith-based prejudices as a badge of honor. I haven’t seen the film either, but regardless of its content I’d never suggest that it doesn’t have every right to be made or that the idea isn’t in and of itself entirely defensible from an artistic perspective: the problem isn’t that movies that test our tolerance for repugnant subjects are being made; it’s that not enough of them are being made, that the mass of movies seek only to reinforce the mush of our self-satisfied ignorance, that our notion of repugnance is itself repugnantly skewed: An imaginary film about the Bush assassination is repugnant, but a war instigated by Bush that has resulted in the murder of 50,000 or 100,000 innocent civilians isn’t?
The criticism for “Death of a President” is similar to the way Nicholson Baker’s “Checkpoint” was received. That’s the novel where Baker imagines a thirty-something man talking to his friend in a Washington, D.C. hotel room about his plan to assassinate Bush. Baker is a top-shelf writer. His books are automatically reviewed, especially when, as in a couple of them, the sex is rabid. Not so “Checkpoint,” which reviewers either ignored or treated with disdain: “This scummy little book,” Leon Wieseltier wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “treats the question of whether the problems that now beset our cherished and anxious country may be solved by the shooting of its president.” Right off, the words “cherished” and “anxious” set off (and set up) Wieseltier as the protector of America and Baker as its subversive — its simplistic assassin. And right off, of course, Wieseltier, a long-time literary editor at the New Republic who, you’d assume, shed those trappings in his 20s, abandons all pretenses of writing a book review within the fair and literary guidelines of the trade, falling instead for that sophomoric temptation of attacking the subject matter. Sophomoric is too good a word: such attacks are infantile. They reveal the critic to be too faint of pen to engage the subject honestly, without hiding behind Sunday school pieties about an American president being dogmatically beyond the reach of certain imaginings. It’s those very dogmatic protections, incidentally, that create a cultish aura around the president, an aura Bush in particular has been exploiting enough to make “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il jealous while making his supporters apoplectic when the aura is pierced (Bush’s supporters? Kim’s? You decide.)
To get back to Gabriel Range’s “Death of a President, here’s Roger Friedman writing on foxnews.com, under this Bush-(if not Debbie)-Does-Dallas of a headline: “Bush ‘Death’ Film: Placing a Target on the President?” (As if a low-budget British film were needed). “I’m guessing,” Friedman begins, “there are a couple of things Americans, no matter what their party affiliation or political ideology, really don’t want to see in a movie. One would be the assassination of a sitting American president, and the other would be a black man getting pinned for his murder just to make a point about anti-Arab sentiment since Sept. 11.” As long as the guessing game is on as to Americans’ preferences for entertainment, there are a couple of things they, regardless of their party affiliations, don’t want to see from their sitting president — say, lies that lead them into a pointless war, lies that enable the government to spy on them, lies that turn the government into an approximation of something more totalitarian than democratic. For that matter, it’s also clear, judging from “The Path to 9/11”’s ratings—they were lower than those for Sunday night football—that most Americans really don’t want to see Wal-Mart quality propaganda posing as history.
But the point about the black man is even more curious, if revealing of Friedman’s attempt, like Wieseltier’s, to stab at straw men. Friedman can’t abide the choice of a black man—a father avenging his soldier son’s killing in Iraq—as the ultimate culprit for the president’s murder: “Is it the act of profiling they want to expose,” Friedman writes, “or is it really just Bush they want to annihilate?” (Funny how Gabriel Range suddenly becomes they). Friedman is missing the point of how 9/11 brought about the “niggerization” of America entire, in Cornel West’s word: Whereas America had terrorized (or niggerized) blacks for centuries, unrestrained, it was now experiencing “niggerization” in turn. There’s more symbolic value in Range choosing a black killer of the president, if it’s the chicken-coming-home-to-roost idea he wants to convey: It was Malcolm X, remember, who referred to JFK’s assassination as the “chicken coming home to roost.” It’s Range’s black character who enacts the idea, if only fictionally.
Naturally, it’s easier for critics to splash about in their confessions of discomfort and distaste, in their shock at such a subject being elevated to film status, and so on. Joe Morgenstern in the Sept. 12 Wall Street Journal couldn’t bring himself to condemn the film on political or cultish grounds. He addressed it artistically and found it in the main well done, even impressively so, but you sense his need to find a weakness, any weakness, on which to hang his bien-pensant sensibility which, in the end, reverts back to Wieseltierish conclusions: “By dramatizing the government's dependence on questionable forensic evidence, by manipulating images and flagrantly falsifying contexts (as in excerpts from a Cheney speech that are made to seem a eulogy for the fallen president), it reminds us of the undependable nature of supposedly objective truth,” he writes, as if begging the reader to shout back: you mean the way the Bush administration has been falsifying reality for the last five years to invent its own murderous “truths”? But that’s not where Morgenstern is going.
“The problem,” he writes, “is that the game played by Mr. Range and his colleagues turns out to be, at bottom, banal. Do we truly not know that reality can be altered, whether by Photoshop or official lies? And by playing it so glibly, ‘Death of a President’ ultimately, and paradoxically, does what it professes to deplore—devalues the difference between real and false.” It doesn’t take seeing the movie to disagree with the reasoning here: a movie director can’t possibly devalue the difference between real and false any more than the way it’s been devalued as a matter of policy, at our and the world’s expense, in the Bush years. The devaluation, if such devaluation exists in Range’s film, is then a metaphor as pointed as his choice of black man as the president’s murderer. It’s as close as his film comes to the reality around us now.
"D.O.A.P.," which was shown at the Toronto Film Festival this week, will be distributed in the United States by Newmarket Films, which made a name for itself when it distributed Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."