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Controversy sells

Just as I feared, I got shut out of this morning's press screening of Death of a President, along with some 200 other journalists and industry types. I did, however, manage to snag a ticket for its final public showing here later in the day.


Noah Cowan, a programmer for the Toronto Film Festival, introduced the movie by saying "This film should be considered more than a single image or a scandal for the American right-wing," referring to the controversy that has surrounded the picture since festival organizers announced it would be making its world premiere here (the $4 million was made for British television, where it will air next month).

Newmarket Films, which bought the U.S. distribution rights for the film here Monday, should hurry up and bring it out soon, because the controversy is bound to be short-lived. As a technical achievement, Death of a President is fascinating: Director Gabriel Range seamlessly mixes real-life footage of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney into his fictional documentary, Zelig-style, to create a convincing and disturbing depiction of an imaginary assassination of Bush during a speaking engagement in Chicago in October 2007.

But what follows is a highly manipulative, dramatically clumsy and painfully obvious scenario in which the Cheney presidency first tries to go to war against Syria for the assassination, then passes an amendment to the Patriot Act which further erodes personal rights and privacy in the U.S., resulting to the arrest and conviction of an innocent Muslim man. The lack of imagination in the film's "what if?" scenario isn't just disappointing: It also renders the second half of the film so dull, it's no surprise that two people sitting near me in the theater were sound asleep.

After the film, Range and his producer/screenwriter Simon Finch took the stage for a Q&A session with the audience. Range said he wanted the film to double as "a series of reflections about things that have happened in America since 9/11" and claimed that the only response he's had from the White House about the movie came from a spokeswoman who said "the film did not dignify a response."

Range also said he wanted to make sure Death of a President strongly conveyed the "horror" of the assassination so no one could accuse him of making a wish-fulfillment fantasy or encouraging anyone to try to kill the President. He can, however, be accused of making an obvious, sensationalistic movie that squanders its potential as speculative drama. 


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