Few recent films have aroused a greater hubbub than Gabriel Range's Death of a President.
Written by Range and co-producer Simon Finch
, Death of a President
is a fictional-documentary account of what might happen if President Bush were assassinated. In response to a film many of them had not seen, pundits such as Pat Buchanan have fumed that this type of narrative is "out of bounds." GOP Congressperson Peter King and others have urged theaters not to screen the film. Democrats such as Hillary Clinton have lent their voices to the hue and cry.
Nonetheless, Death of a President
, raising various issues concerning security, liberty and the American way of life during the past five years, has gone on to win the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI) at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival
. Born in England, Range has lived and worked in the US for a number of years as a journalist. His directorial credits include The Day Britain Stopped
(2003) and The Man Who Broke Britain
Why did you want to make this film?
Whenever there's a horrific event of any kind, any sort of national tragedy, there's a period of reflection. Imagining the assassination of President Bush is very striking. It's a very arresting way of saying: Where have we got to in the last five years? It struck me as a very provocative way of asking some questions about how the war on terror has been conduced, about the decision to invade Iraq, and providing a fresh refection on some of things that have happened in the last five years.
Why set it in Chicago?
Setting aside Kent State, the images of the Chicago Police Department pulling people off that statue in Grant Park, or beating people outside the Hilton on Michigan Avenue during the  Democratic Convention - this is regarded by historians as the sort of moment when there was an awareness of how divisive the war in Vietnam had become. Chicago has been the scene of some huge anti-war demonstrations for the current conflict. So it felt appropriate to explore some of those [resonances].
Why set the date on October 19, 2007?
October 19 was a date when we could make some reasonable assumptions about the state of administration and the likely political agenda at the time. It's fair to say the situation in Iraq is unlikely to have improved dramatically by October 19. Obviously, President Bush is still in office. Some of the guesses we were making about the future have proved to be quite prescient. In the film, President Bush delivers a quite uncompromising message to North Korea and on the date the film was released in the UK, North Korea announced it had completed its first successful nuclear test. Bush was on our TV screen saying something very similar to what he said in 2003, so hopefully we're getting some things right.
So it has nothing to do with the fact that Bush was giving an economic speech on October 19? October 19, 1987 is referred to in the US as "Black Monday." The Stock Exchange plummeted that day.
Oh, no, that's a coincidence... [Laughs] ...to enter the conspiracy theory.
What are your political intentions behind the film?
It's not a polemic. It's not a personal attack on President Bush. It's not an anti-Republican film. It is definitely a film that I hope will pose some very searching questions about the way the current administration has prosecuted the war on terror, the way the administration has often sought to hold up high-profile terror cases as sort of poster boys for terrorism, as effective reminders that the battlefield on terror is right here in every American city. Under the cover of war, it's been possible for the administration to do things we wouldn't otherwise have allowed.
The film is a warning in two ways. The first is the format. Did you want to show how images could be manipulated to "prove" something had happened but, in fact, did not happen?
That's one of the things that make this format so interesting. To a degree, every news story, a portrayal of world event of any kind is an interpretation. By its nature, any news report is an interpretation of the facts. So in a way, I was trying to show that this is an extreme version of the kind of manipulation that does occur in the media.
Secondly, the film is a plea that we do not resort to violence.
I hope you would agree that nobody would see this film and think shooting President Bush was a good idea.
Yes, on one hand, people who have not seen the film, figure that this might give someone the idea to kill Bush. On the other hand, by looking at it, you could see why people in power might think it is good idea to kill Bush. Bush becomes a martyr, and therefore, they can set forth their agenda a la the PATRIOT Act III.
The intent of the film wasn't really to imagine an authentic what-if. The purpose of the film wasn't really to say what exactly the world would like in the aftermath of President Bush's assassination. The purpose or intent of the film was to use the dramatic device of President Bush's assassination as a means of looking at the things that have happened already. PATRIOT III is almost an allegory for the PATRIOT Act. What I'm trying to explore there is [that] in times of panic and stress, we sometimes do things in which we later regret.
In what ways should we get rid of Bush, if at all?
The film is not a personal attack on President Bush. The film is not a call to get rid of President Bush. We all just need to be very conscious of things the administration has done in the name of fighting the war on terror. The motives in a lot of cases are quite suspect. Those are the things we should be talking and thinking about. The situation in Iraq is not getting better and, as the conflict goes on progressively, more and more people are asking why their loved one is in Iraq.
What would you say to those who complained you made Bush too sympathetic?
That has been a criticism that has been leveled at me already [laughs]. Some people were a bit surprised that the film was almost too sympathetic of Bush. I would say the film is not sympathetic to the administration's policies. But it was very important that you got a sense of President Bush as a human being because, in order for you to understand the assassination as a horrific act, to really appreciate the horror of that act, you have to have the sense of President Bush as a human being.
Why did you make the assassin a person of color?
What's important about the assassin is that he is from a military family.
One could also say with regard to the PATRIOT Act that it might not be such a bad idea. In the film, the FBI sits around and monitors a bunch of left-wing groups. Why should or would non-political types or conservatives care that the FBI is monitoring those groups?
The balance between civil liberties and security is an incredibly difficult one to strike, and I'm not trying to minimize how difficult that dilemma is.
Well, it plays into that attitude: "I have nothing to hide. Why should I mind if the government is spying on me?"
It's a slippery slope. Even if you have nothing to hide, you have every reason to be concerned that the government powers be regulated and in-check. History shows us that you cannot necessarily trust an administration to behave honorably when it has those powers. History shows us that those kinds of powers can be abused.
One of the main criticisms of Saddam Hussein's Iraq is that the opposition could not go about their business without having every word sent immediately back to Saddam Hussein. President Bush is very keen to remind us that we're fighting for a democracy and a defining characteristic of that democracy should allow dissent. You should be free to criticize your elected leaders. One of the other things people have said about this film is that it is in some way un-American. I would really take issue with that because it is absolutely American. America is, after all, a free country and a democracy.
What kind of threats have you received for making this film?
There were a handful of threats that coincided with the announcement of the film. People imagined the film would be some kind of polemic against President Bush. It would be some sort of left-wing rant, which would be an incitement to commit this act.
There are some large theater chains that are not going to screen the film.
That's very interesting because there's a huge appetite to see the film.
It's surprising that some cinema screens are deciding to make their minds up for their audience. I would urge that you don't judge the film until you've seen it. Go and see it for yourself and make your own mind up.
Lastly, what do you think about these interviews? Do you think they serve the film or do you think the film should just speak for itself?
The film does speak for itself. I'm happy to talk about the film because more people will go and see it. What's been great is that, as more people have seen the film, the responses have been very good. I've been surprised, but I think it is different than what people expect.