"Death of a President" is an invented documentary that derives undeniable power from its controversy-courting premise: the fictitious assassination of President George W. Bush in Chicago on October 19, 2007. The British director, Gabriel Range, a former BBC documentarian, doesn't overplay the shooting itself — it passes in a flash, in a jumble of hand-held imagery. (It resembles the video coverage of the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan.) What Range is concerned with is the political and cultural fallout from this central event. It's a serious picture, skillfully assembled from actual news footage of Bush blended with a staged anti-war demonstration and after-the-fact "interviews" with various fictional aides, reporters, Secret Service agents and FBI technicians. The projected murder of a living person is creepy, but the film doesn't feel like a call to kill the president.
However, even though Range takes great pains in the first third of the film to establish Bush as a human being — a man of earnest convictions, both liked and admired by those around him — the director's own political orientation seems clear, and, given this president's widespread unpopularity, familiar. Which is not to say it's unworthy; only that a few elements of the movie, as appealing as they may be to some critics of the Bush Administration, ring hollow.
The setup is brisk. Bush has come to Chicago to give a speech to an economics organization. He is greeted by an army of protesters (reminiscent, in their near-hysterical rage, of the anti-war militants of an earlier era, at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968). The mood of the crowd is ugly, and when some protesters break through a street barrier to block the presidential motorcade, police on the scene haul out their riot batons. Following Bush's speech, at a local hotel, he is making his way out to an executive limo, shaking hands with well-wishers along the way, when two shots ring out. Bush is rushed to a hospital, where he soon dies, and the remaining hour of the movie devolves into what is essentially a straightforward murder investigation.
The FBI quickly zeroes in on a Syrian immigrant named Jamal Abu Zikri (Malik Bader), who argues that he has been arrested simply because he is a Muslim, a view the movie tacitly endorses. However, Zikri does work in the building across the street from the hotel where Bush was shot, and gunpowder residue is discovered on the sleeve of his jacket. He claims to know nothing about guns — but then a photo is found in his home showing him holding a rifle during his time in the Syrian army. Zikri says he forgot about that. Finally, Zikri's wife (Hend Ayoub) confirms that her husband went through a terrorist training course at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in 2000. He was duped into doing so, though. As an indictment of American Islamophobia, this part of the film is unpersuasive. Zikri is a Muslim, but he's not just any Muslim, and surely the FBI would have been remiss in not detaining him for at least a little while.
Over the course of the following year, many significant things happen. Richard Cheney is installed as president (and does his best to stir up a war with Syria); an insanely beefed-up Patriot Act is made permanent law; and, presumably, the country begins spiraling down into full-on fascism. But that's another movie. (Is Oliver Stone free to do the sequel?)
"Death of a President" offers these projections as food for thought, and of course they are. They've been contemplated in other places too, although not with the visual and narrative reinforcement with which they're presented here. The picture has a few odd glitches: a presumably knowledgeable Bush aide mangles the name of North Korea's dictator as "Kim Il Jong," and Zikri's wife, although presented as a devout Muslim, complete with head scarf, also wears lipstick, and apparently plucks her eyebrows too. Still, the film prompts thought about things like the situation of peaceable Muslims in post-9/11 America, and about the always-precarious status of civil liberties in a time of war. It gives you something to talk about, and that, at least, is more than can be said of many other movies of the moment, which leave you with little more to discuss than how empty they are. This is not that.
"The Bridge": Last Looks
This ice-bath documentary — a visual record of the final moments of some of the 24 people who chose to end their lives with a leap from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in 2004 — leaves you feeling that perhaps hell is a little closer at hand than you'd previously imagined.
The Golden Gate, completed in 1937, is the second-longest suspension bridge in the country and reportedly the number-one suicide destination in the world. After climbing the railing down onto the ledge that runs along the outside of the bridge, and then pushing off into the air, a jumper will fall for about four seconds before hitting the water 220 feet below, at a speed of 75 miles an hour. Few survive this experience. It's said that bridge authorities kept count of the number of suicides until 1995, when the total reached 1,000.
Eric Steel, a movie production executive who'd never actually made a film before, read about the Golden Gate's dark magnetism in a 2003 New Yorker article called "Jumpers," by Tad Friend. Fascinated, he flew to San Francisco, put together a video crew and gingerly extracted permits from the city to film the bridge every daylight hour, every day of the week, for one whole year. His setup was simple. One camera was locked down on a wide shot of the bridge, taking in its entire span; the other, equipped with an extreme long-range lens, was dedicated to zooming in on individuals in the constant stream of people walking across. (Steel says an overriding concern was to prevent suicide jumps whenever possible, and in some cases he and his crew did — we see loitering people being gently led away from the railing by cops. However, the telltale signs of an imminent leap — a suddenly-shrugged-off backpack, a tossed wallet — happen so quickly that a jumper can be gone before a speed-dial call to the bridge police can have any effect.)
Steel's 93-minute film is, among other things, one of the most beautiful movies yet shot with mini-DV cameras. The gorgeous picture-postcard vistas of the great orange bridge, with fat white clouds tumbling by overhead and pelicans and windsurfers skimming the water down below, would be obscene, given the context, were the images not so hauntingly tempered by Alex Heffes' spare electro-acoustic score. Up-close on the bridge, we see people strolling by, kids running around, lovers kissing. Then the camera tightens in on a man pacing near the railing, talking into a cell phone. He's laughing. Then — it takes just seconds — he bends down to set the phone on the ground, mounts the railing, swings his legs over, crosses himself with his right hand and jumps. The lack of drama is unnerving — there's no swelling music, no slick, manipulative montage. His life ends; the rest of life, passing by along the bridge, goes serenely on.
Steel interviews the families and friends of the people we see plummeting into the water. Their comments have a terrible similarity:
"She was at the end of her rope."
"He felt his body was a prison. He felt trapped."
"Some days you think like that yourself. He thought about it every day."
We see a suicide note left behind: "I am fat, ugly, deaf, can't see, and I am tired."
A woman remembers a final phone call from a friend on his way to the bridge: "I just called to say goodbye," he tells her. "It's time."
Kevin Hines, now 25, was driven toward the bridge by his severe bipolar disorder. He stood weeping near the railing for 40 minutes, but nobody in the passing throng stopped to express concern. Finally a woman, a foreign tourist, approached and handed him a camera. She wanted him to take her picture. Bottoming out, Hines climbed down onto the ledge and jumped. Amazingly, he lived (although the impact of hitting the water rammed his shattered lumbar bones up into his internal organs). He remembers his last thoughts with an awful clarity: "The second my hands left the railing, I said, 'I don't wanna die.' "
Steel notes that the railing on the Golden Gate Bridge is only four feet high. But bridge officials have fought off calls for a more substantial suicide barrier for years, citing financial strain and aesthetic objections (even though both the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower have installed such barriers, and no longer have a suicide problem.) And so the bridge continues to exude its lethal allure to terminally troubled people across the country. In the movie, a woman recalls a close friend who, too poor to afford medication for his chronic depression, finally took the leap. It was so easy.
"I think the bridge has a false romanticism to it," she says, with extraordinary bitterness. "Maybe walking out there he had a romantic moment or two, or an hour. But hey, the water can't be fun."
"Babel": Small World
As he did in his two previous features, "Amores Perros" (2000) and "21 Grams" (2003), the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has once again teamed with the writer Guillermo Arriaga to create a densely layered picture filled with characters and situations that defy behavioral clichés at every turn. The movie begins with a random incident in a remote part of North Africa and then follows the unforeseen ripples it sends out across the world. González Iñárritu means the film to be an examination of various forms of communication breakdown, both linguistic and interpersonal. At the end, it doesn't really pull together into a seamless vision, but it's filled with sights and scenes that are uniquely absorbing.
The story is told in an aggressively nonlinear fashion, assembling itself as the movie unfolds. In the rocky hills of the Moroccan desert, a Japanese tourist (Kôji Yakusho), winding up a game-hunting vacation, makes a gift of a high-powered Winchester rifle to his wizened guide (played, as are many of the movie's other characters, by a non-professional actor). The guide in turn barters the gun to a neighbor, who hands it off to his two young sons for the purpose of shooting the jackals that prey on the family's goat herd. Larking about on a mountainside soon after, the boys are idly pot-shotting around when one of their bullets hits a tourist bus in the valley below, seriously wounding a passenger, a woman named Susan (Cate Blanchett). Since the nearest hospital is far away, an English-speaking Moroccan suggests to Susan's husband, Richard (Brad Pitt), that they take her to his nearby village, where there is a doctor and a telephone.
Arriving there, Richard calls home to San Diego, where the family's longtime Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), is tending the couple's two young children. Amelia had been planning to take a day off to attend her son's wedding in Mexico. But Richard tells her to cancel that plan, since he and Susan will be delayed in returning home, and there's no one else to stay with his son and daughter. Unwilling to miss the wedding, Amelia decides to take the kids with her, and soon they are on their way across the border.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the Tokyo police have been informed that the gun used in Susan's shooting belongs to a local businessman. Two detectives are dispatched to find him, but succeed only in locating his teenage daughter (Rinko Kikuchi), a deaf-mute girl who is having painful problems of her own.
The characters played by Blanchett and Pitt are a study in themselves. They've taken a Moroccan vacation to try to lift Susan out of the depression into which she's sunk following the death of their youngest child. But Susan is stymied by the local culture, with its indifference to low-fat foods and the pleasures of Diet Coke. Richard has more substantive misgivings about the lack of modern medical facilities. Both husband and wife feel walled out by the Moroccan language barrier.
Back in San Diego, the sweet-natured Amelia can't understand why there should be so much difficulty attached to taking two American children on a short trip that happens to cross a border. (Some INS agents are prepared to wreck her life in the interest of raising her immigration-consciousness.) And in Tokyo — in a part of the story that doesn't entirely line up with the rest of the movie — the game-hunting businessman Yasujiro is baffled by his failure to penetrate the intense isolation felt by his daughter, whose inability to hear or speak has made permanent the sense of apartness that's being temporarily felt by Richard and Susan in Morocco.
Blanchett and Pitt sink deep into the emotional exhaustion of their characters. Pitt, especially, all but extinguishes his glossy star power (his hair is graying here, and his eyes webbed-around with wrinkles). He conveys Richard's despair with a vivid inwardness that reminds you how powerful an actor he can be. And Rinko Kikuchi gives a striking performance as the deaf-mute daughter, a girl adrift without words in a world she fears she'll never fully inhabit. In several startling scenes, she conveys a desperate sexuality that's unexpectedly moving.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot "Brokeback Mountain," as well as the two earlier films by González I&241;árritu, achieves some memorable photographic effects here — especially a long, spellbinding shot that starts on a naked woman and a man standing in profile on a penthouse balcony high above Tokyo; as the camera slowly pulls out, the electric spectacle of the city seeps into the frame and is soon teeming around them. Prieto also does elegant justice to the movie's most boldly-imagined scene, involving Richard and Susan and an improvised bedpan — an unforgettable invocation of connubial devotion.
If the characters' failed connections fail in themselves to add up to a grand tapestry of human miscommunication, the movie's wealth of marvelous scenes, virtuoso sequences and remarkable performances more than compensate. It's sad that González Iñárritu and screenwriter Arriaga are publicly feuding about which of them deserves the most credit for this film; its artistry would seem to be indivisible.
("Babel" is a Paramount Vantage release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)
"Cocaine Cowboys": Miami Viceroys
Bullets fly and dead bodies drop like whacked weeds in this startling documentary about the bad old days of the Miami drug trade. Working with a rich trove of period TV news reports, tourist footage and home movies from the 1980s, Florida filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman vividly depict a period in which drugs, guns, big money and a vicious new breed of gangsters combined to turn a formerly genteel resort town into the murder capital of America.
The movie arranges its blood-spattered footage around extensive interviews with three very talkative principals: Jon Pernell Roberts, a trafficker who in his '80s heyday smuggled some $2-billion-worth of cocaine into South Florida for Colombia's Medellín Cartel; his associate Mickey Munday, a brusque, ballsy pilot; and, most chillingly, Jorge "Rivi" Ayala, an eerily affable $1,000-a-day hit man for the most savage of the local bosses, a transplanted Colombian woman named Griselda Blanco — "The Black Widow."
Roberts and Munday hooked up in the 1970s, when the previously profitable market for marijuana was tailing off and cocaine — by weight, a much more profitable product to move — was becoming fashionable among the well-to-do. Roberts started out small, grossing about $30,000 a week. Then he and Munday flew down to Colombia to make a direct connection with the storied drug lords of Medellín. ("Bums," says Munday — not the high-tech conspirators of legend, but "just a bunch of street thugs that got lucky.") Soon Roberts was averaging a million dollars a trip, and buying fast cars, helicopters, high-speed Cigarette boats and vast swaths of useful real estate all over South Florida. And he wasn't the only one living high. Local banks were stuffed with drug cash. Expensive nightclubs, jewelry stores and high-end car dealerships (bulletproof limos a specialty) were sprouting up everywhere. Cops got in on the action, too — according to Edna Buchanan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami Herald crime reporter, one whole police-academy graduating class eventually wound up in jail on drug charges. It was an astonishing time.
The movie dates the start of the "cocaine cowboy" era to 1979, when two Latino men were gunned down in the Dadeland Mall. The municipal murder rate started trending straight up in 1980, after Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's Mariel boatlift deposited 125,000 of his most-unwanted citizens in Miami — a few thousand of whom were later determined to be violent criminals. In 1983, Brian De Palma released his iconic Miami drug-slaughter movie, "Scarface," and Time magazine ran a cover story on the grisly South Florida scene called "Paradise Lost." The following year, the "Miami Vice" TV series, shot on location, started airing on NBC. In the national imagination, the city was beginning to resemble a conquered province in the brutal new drug war.
In the end, though, the feds moved in and started knocking coke planes out of the sky and strafing smugglers to a standstill on the water. In 1986, Roberts and Munday got popped and did several years in prison (they're now free). The assassin Ayala rolled over on his boss, Griselda Blanco, and is still in jail. Blanco herself — who ordered the murders of men, women and children on virtually a daily basis, and was said to have slit the throats of the lovers she slept with — is the movie's most alarming character. After serving a wrist-slap sentence (because of a prosecutorial snafu), she disappeared back into Colombia in 2000, and hasn't been heard from since.
"Cocaine Cowboys" is a model of tight editing and smartly marshaled resources. The movie skids along like a drive-by shooting, and you're a little breathless by the time the darkly ironic ending arrives. In the 1990s, Miami turned a page. It is now an international capital of the glittery good life, thick with fashion models, rap moguls and other fun-seekers of unlimited means. How was this transition facilitated? As it turns out, all the hundreds of millions of dollars churned up by the drug trade in the 1980s had to go somewhere, and a lot of it went into up-scaling the city with luxury construction. The spectacular architecture that now sparkles in the sun above Biscayne Bay turns out to rest upon the bones of untold corpses and the shards of countless drug-shattered lives. An unattractive trade-off, in some people's view. As Edna Buchanan says in the movie, "At what price a skyline? Too many people died for it."
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