LOS ANGELES — John Wilkes Booth famously wanted the South to rise again and thought he could destroy the Union by chopping off its head. Charles Guiteau thought he was personally responsible for President Garfield's election, and he'd be damned if he didn't deserve some thanks — so he killed him. President McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was an anarchist who believed the American rich exploited the nation's poor.
Gabriel Range — well, Gabriel Range just wants to make you think, and to achieve this goal he's willing to emulate his dangerous predecessors. This Friday, Range will shoot and kill the president of the United States.
And then he'll do it again. And again. Because Range's assassination is pure fiction, of course, dramatized using intricately researched archival footage and computer-generated effects. His film, "Death of a President," which imagines that George W. Bush is killed by sniper fire at a speech in Chicago, has become a controversial flashpoint, with partisans on both sides of the political divide calling it "sick" and "disgusting."
According to the director, though, the subject of his film isn't the assassination at all, but rather the current state of American politics after 9/11 — for which the death of a sitting president serves as an unsettling metaphor.
"It struck me that imagining the assassination of President Bush was a very potent way of saying, 'Where has the prosecution of the war on terror taken us?' " Range asserted. "The purpose of the film was not to imagine how the world stage would reset with the assassination of George Bush. The intent of the film is really to use the assassination of President Bush as a dramatic device — using the future as an allegory to comment on the past."
That past is, specifically, the administration's actions in fighting terror at home and across the globe — from the war in Iraq to the Patriot Act to other curtailments of civil liberties. During the course of Range's film, President Cheney (who assumes office after Bush is shot) passes into legislation a bill called simply "Patriot 3," and rushes to tie the shooting to a Syrian conspiracy.
"I think that it's more [about] a sense that the administration sought to link 9/11 to Iraq in a way that was very cynical. We are three and a half years down the road and the situation in Iraq is not getting better — if anything it's getting worse," Range declared. "The film is basically people describing an event that is nominally in the future as if it were in the past, when in actual fact it's about the present. I think there's something quite powerful about that."
Intending to subliminally compare the assassination with 9/11, it was important that the assassination in "Death of a President," which comes suddenly and without warning, be appropriately shocking and disquieting.
"It was very important, regardless of what anyone might think of President Bush as an individual, that the assassination be portrayed as an horrific event," Range said adamantly, contending that the revulsion comes not just from the graphic nature of the shooting, but also from the demise of a Bush who, despite the director's own misgivings, is portrayed as warm and congenial in the film.
"In order to get a sense of the horror, you need to get a sense of George Bush as an individual, as a human being. I hope that what the film does is give a sense of what the people who work most closely with Bush really think about him," Range said. "[The movie] is very much inspired by conversations with the real-life counterparts to people in the film. So the kinds of things the speechwriter character says about Bush in the film are absolutely the kind of things Karen Hughes really genuinely believes about him."
By crafting a sympathetic Bush, Range hopes his film is seen as political without seeming angry, thought-provoking without being outrageous.
"If people go to the cinema expecting to have some great moment of catharsis watching the president being shot, I suspect they're in for a pretty big surprise. I think that anyone who's expecting this to be a liberal wet dream is in for quite a shock," Range warned. "It was very important that the film was not a political rant. It was not just a condemnation or polemic because I think that polemics are easy to dismiss."
Good luck. "Death of a President," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, has been harshly rebuked by politicians and talking heads alike. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called the film "despicable," adding in an interview with The Journal News , "I think it's absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick."
But Senator Clinton hasn't seen the film — a fact that angers Range.
"I'm perfectly willing to talk with anyone who's seen the film about why they feel it's offensive," Range said. "What I'm less inclined to do is engage in a debate with someone who has not seen the film. It was extraordinary to hear someone like Hillary Clinton calling the film 'sick' and 'disgusting' when she hasn't seen it. One of the ironies is that the film describes a rush to judgment and that's exactly what happened when we released it."
Range hopes the film can weather the controversy, and believes that for those who quiet their own reservations, "Death of a President" offers real truths. "The jury at Toronto said they thought the film distorted reality to reveal a deeper truth," Range beamed. "If an audience leaves feeling that, then I'm thrilled."
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