To cite a friend from The Religion of Peace, I guess I’d better “Eck-fucking-splain.” I at first refused to see this movie, a fake documentary purporting to be from late 2008 about “last year’s” assassination of President Bush. When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. I expected, and not for no reason, for it to be an exhortatory “let’s assassinate the bastard” film, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of Bushitleretardespot aka Dubya McChimpburton finally getting what murdering, torturing liars deserve. Something for the Kossacks, DU, etc., to masturbate to while congratulating themselves about what humanitarian peacemakers they are.
While I caveated that I didn’t object in principle to using a real-life personage in a fiction film, I noted that seeing it at Toronto would likely pose further issues, given the nature of the audiences there. And frankly, the film’s British provenance and some of the words of the film-maker didn’t help.
But before and during Toronto, I took some mild criticism from my friends. Josh Rothkopf of Time Out New York said something like “Who cares what others make of it. You and I should see it together. And discuss it after.” Scott Tobias of the Onion (who liked the film quite a bit and took some of the nation’s top film chains to task for refusing to book the movie) saw the film and then told me words to the effect of “I don’t think you’d have a problem with it if you saw it alone.”
How right he was. I knew while I was at the Virginia Film Festival that it’d be playing at a non-chain screen (the Vinegar Hill) a block from the downtown Charlottesville theater where I’d be. At 1050pm, I decided on a whim to duck out of the 2nd episode of the Jay Bakker reality-TV show I was watching to take a chance on the 11pm show of DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, a 3-minute walk away (if it had been so much as a drive to the UVa campus, I wouldn’t have bothered). When I walked into the theater, I realized I was absolutely alone. I was happy because now audience reaction wouldn’t be an issue, but I was still stunned. I realize that 11pm isn’t prime-time, but it was also opening night. (DOAP apparently is tanking in general.) So without having to listen to anybody laughing at certain moments or yelling “yeah!!” at others, I was free to look at what was in front of me.
What I saw was a formally brilliant film, one that uses the conventions of the History Channel special (by coincidence, I’ve been watching them a lot recently) to create a gripping thriller to the point of the crime and then an interesting police procedural thereafter — a structure rather like Akira Kurosawa’s great film HIGH AND LOW. It is of no great import and doesn’t do anything beyond be supremely entertaining while it’s unspooling (like Stanley Kauffmann once “complained” about HIGH AND LOW). I don’t know how well DOAP would hold up to a second viewing, given that its pleasures are just about entirely narrative (I was torn between 7 and 8 grades), but it’s never anything less than impressive. I felt like a Martian watching a special on the sensational trial of some earthling named Ojay Simpson. DOAP is somewhat of a stunt movie, still it does often leave you wondering “how did they do it” (well, not really, you know it’s CGI, stock footage, and careful use of angles and editing).
Then there’s the performances — some of the most strangely effective “performances” I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know quite how to describe them leaving the theater. Mostly, it’s talking heads, as befits this sort of film and the personages are very generic (there’s not the obvious parallellisms like PRIMARY COLORS had — Billy Bob Thornton as James Carville, Kathy Bates as Betsey Wright, etc.) Range was smart to cast smaller names. I only “spotted” one actor, James Urbaniak, from Hal Hartley’s films, but he was well-cast to personality-type as a forensics expert. DOAP’s talking heads, for fake ones, are incredibly believable, and yet see-throughable *as performing,* in the same way that anyone who goes on a talk show is “performing” in a way, but without winking at the audience.
DOAP is an ensemble masterpiece of these sorts of deliberate “performances” (the best being the stoic wife of the eventual assassin). DOAP is meant to be “reality,” but because it fits a pre-existing genre, the actors have to produce what in classical terms might be called clumsy acting — one of Bush’s “advisers” chokes-up on cue when describing some advice she gave, say. We see the acting, but the actors never let on that they’re playing characters and their stumbles are as precisely timed as they would be in “reality.” Fortunately, it never descends into camp or aims for “so-bad-it’s good.” It’s a kind of acting that we’re meant to see through, but in ways that we’re used to seeing through. Professional wrestling keeps popping into my head as an analogy (another kind of “stunt” in its own right) and I once had a former pro-wrestling manger tell me that you have to be able to wrestle for real in order to be convincing at “wrestling.” The closest comparison I can think of in movies is the scene in BOOGIE NIGHTS where Amber Waves and Dirk Diggler are shooting a porn film and we see Julianne Moore and Mark Wahlberg trying to “act” in the drama before the sex begins. Moore and Wahlberg are brilliant because Waves and Diggler are terrible, buit convincingly terrible.
But let’s face it, much of the criticism of this film from conservatives, like with BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is based on a kind of knee-jerk moralism, based on nothing more than the surface subject matter, but sight-unseen. This sort of thread at AllahPundit was typical, though I hasten to add — as happened with GAY COWBOY MOVIE — conservatives were reacting to how the film was in fact being consumed in not a few liberal quarters. (Why does Michael Medved cite box-office stats so much? I mean, why should a critic care about such a thing, in general. Also, Mikey, is the movie “truly awful” or just “relentlessly mediocre”?)
As for the morality of the film’s content, well … it is possible to construct a moral case that any depiction of a current named real-life public figure in a fictional context is offensive per se. But in those terms, it wouldn’t persuade many people and it’d be kind of stupid.
Nor is portraying the death of a real-life person itself immoral — were GANDHI or JFK or MALCOLM X somehow “exploitative” of the assassinations of their real-life protagonists? DOAP, in fact, bears more than a slight resemblance to JFK as a film, though Gabriel Range isn’t the stylistic virtuoso that Oliver Stone is. Sure, all those movies were made after the fact, but the immoral exploitation of a past event is still possible (just use your imagination).
I could also imagine that one could argue — though nobody is doing so to my knowledge — that it’s somehow immoral to mix real footage and staged footage. Argument being, that it hampers our ability to tell truth from fiction, or to care about the distinction since “it all looks the same.” And if DOAP were actually purporting to be a work of journalism, I would agree that this would be a problem, like when ABC using re-enactments as footage on the nightly news. But who’s gonna watch DOAP that way? Everybody knows this is a work of fiction, albeit using some journalistic conventions. And that Rubicon, making fiction that looks “real” was crossed long ago in the movies — from Italian neorealism a half-century ago to today’s reality-TV (which now is even being parodied on a cartoon — Comedy Central’s “Drawn Together”). And the fake documentary from THIS IS SPINAL TAP on is now practically its own genre, though admittedly DOAP is the first to come readily to mind that isn’t largely or entirely a comedy.
So it seems to me that DOAP could only be condemned as immoral if it objectively made an assassination attempt on Bush more likely. It could do this in one of two ways — either (1) technically or (2) exhortatively. Or (1) “here’s how to do it” or (2) “yeah … do it” or “he deserves it.” (If there are other ways a hypothetical movie could theoretically make an assassination bid more likely, I’d be happy to entertain them.)
After all, it’s hardly as though the assassination of a political leader is itself a taboo or an unknown concept or an experience so out of the realm of ordinary life that, like sex before a 10-year-old, it’s a subject that should not be mentioned in any way. We do also have the experience of a movie inspiring an assassination attempt on a US president — TAXI DRIVER. Except that not only did Travis Bickle never take a shot at Sen. Pallantine, the senator was more a symbol than a character and politically nondescript to boot (certainly Travis’s possible motive would not have been ideology or any dislike for the senator, but sexual jealousy and anger at personal matters involving his campaign team). So for that reason, I’m not especially persuaded that DOAP’s using a named real-life politician in its very premise is all that important. The gap between Harvey Keitel and Ronald Reagan seems vast enough to make nonsense of the notion that DOAP’s admittedly unprecedented premise will matter that much. Would-be or wanna-be assassins don’t need that much specificity (again absent (1) or (2) above).
As for (1), it’s not even arguable. This is not the cinematic equivalent of THE ANARCHIST COOKBOOK. It’s not as though Range shows how to slip arsenic into the White House coffee or some other novel means. The killing is done in exactly the manner of the Kennedy assassination — shooting from a tall building nearby. But the film leaves hanging the mystery of how the assassin … I will be vague … was able to get the information he needed, though it makes clear that he did get it (and the fact of the information’s generic existence is not news to anybody). The “procedural” material is entirely on the detection end, unlike say, DAY OF THE JACKAL, which very much is (half-)about the methodical depiction of a professional assassin going about his work.
As for (2), it’s hardly more arguable. I frankly don’t see how anybody with two neurons to rub together who actually sees DOAP can think that the film advocates assassinating Bush or secretly hopes for it. Michelle Malkin, no liberal Bush-hater, has adequately documented that Bush assassination chic in fact exists among those afflicted with Bush Derangement Syndrome. But the eager, exhortatory tone of what she shows is so utterly different from the tone of DOAP that it’s hard to know what else to say but to state the contrast. I’m tempted to say that this contrast is a matter of objective aesthetic fact (and given how elusive a quality “tone” is, that I’m willing to say anything about tone can be objective fact should say it all).
The second half, of the investigation and political aftermath of the assassination is more-pointed in its liberalism — the investigators focus on an Arab, there is a bit of a national backlash. But it hardly more damnable in tone, stridency or content to the Democratic National Committee Web site or the press releases that come out the offices of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid every day. I don’t mean that as a particular slam on those estimable personages as extremists (I would cite Kos etc., if that were my intent). But they’re the leaders of the opposition party, and that’s what opposition parties do: criticize the party in power. The maker of this movie is a liberal, but he is not, at least on the basis of this film, deranged. Maybe DOAP simply profits by comparison to the rest of the BDS crap that’s out there, but that point still should be made.
The nation’s film critics, who constitute a bohemian bunch where the political spectrum ranges from liberalism on the right, through leftism in the centre, to insanity on the left, have not responded to DOAP so well since its tumultuous Toronto premiere. It only got a 32 percent fresh rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, dissed DOAP for this relative moderation and lack of fireworks in the second half, calling it undramatic timidity:
The movie doesn’t make you think; it just confirms what you already think you know … it [doesn’t] take any sort of brain trust to figure out that these cowboys are bad news, and our country is in dire straits.
Others have picked up that cudgel, complaining that it’s not provocative enough. AO Scott in the New York Times said “its provocations are not particularly insightful or original.” Richard Roeper of Ebert & the Other Guy (now “The Other Guy and the Other Other Guy”) “you better gives us something more than this,” and The Other Other Guy (Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune) said the film’s methods “aren’t gonna yield much in the way of political provocation.” Kyle Smith in the New York Post called it “a dose of Nyquil” rather than the presumably preferable “cinematic Molotov cocktail” and even complained that the film DIDN’T fetishize the assassination itself sufficiently.
The moment you’ve been waiting for since the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival consists of one second’s worth of jumbled images of a crowd of people hitting the deck as shots crackle in the air. This isn’t the tollbooth scene from “The Godfather.” You don’t even get treated to a slo-mo replay. (italic emphasis by VJM)
Now it’s perfectly fair not to like DOAP, but when a film is being attacked from the left for being insufficiently angry or provocative or overcautious, that also is worth noting.
If anything, from a liberal’s perspective, all the stuff that happens after the assassination is bad. Two words: President. Cheney.¹ Three more words: Expanded. Patriot. Act. The first part of the movie, before the assassination, has no political content or criticism of Bush whatsoever. It’s mostly interviews with his personal team or security or the investigators. No John Kerry calling him stupid. No Pelosi calling him the head of the culture of corruption. No John Murtha calling him a chickenhawk. No Howard Dean saying he had blood on his hands — nothing. The hypothetical Martian would be hard-pressed even to peg this character “President Bush” on the political spectrum. To be sure, there is the terminal-BDS-afflicted protesters saying the kinds of things that the BDS-afflicted say. But Range simply portrays them as they are, which is to say, as terminally deranged; I actually cheered when the Chicago police began pepper-spraying them. Admittedly, I’m me, but the protesters are hardly the movie’s moral center particularly since we see in DOAP some of their hate-speech, only one step short of what Malkin documents.
In fact, I could go further. The film opens with an Arab woman (we only later exactly who she is and what relationship she has to the film’s events) saying she wanted to grab the person who squeezed the trigger and say “did you not think what would happen?” It really helps in this matter that Range doesn’t overplay his hand in the second half of the film. I mean, does anybody really doubt that after a presidential assassination linked to Arab terrorism, that there would be more anti-terror laws or pressure to move militarily against one or more Arab states? But the specific things that happen are actually believable, both in where they go and where they don’t go. President Cheney doesn’t deport all Arabs, nuke Tehran, institute martial law or make Cheney-worship the state religion or somesuch. It may run counter to Range’s personal politics, but I think DOAP can be seen as a warning against the excesses of BDS and the protest culture. That in certain situations, public hatred and the kinds of things the protesters do will produce a backlash against dissent broadly and civil-liberties more generally. A Marxist would call it “heightening the contradictions in the system,” but real people have to live under these “heightened contradictions.” Admittedly, a post-assassination aftermath is an extreme one, but there is historic precedent. Two words: Richard. Nixon. Three more words (one concept): “Acid, amnesty, abortion.”
¹ Which makes nonsense of liberals’ notion that the 1998 impeachment of President Clinton was in any way an effort to overturn the 1990s’ elections. Two words — President. Gore. (One more thought, if Clinton had been removed from office, Republicans would have had to have run in 2000 against an incumbent President Gore, arguing for the third president in three years. Not the best thing to do if you can avoid it.)
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