`Death' meant as a way to start the conversation

October 27, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Death of a President, the controversial documentary-style feature depicting the assassination of President Bush, is actually a movie about protest as well as political homicide. Over the phone from New York, Gabriel Range, the British director, says he hit on the subject of presidential assassination as the most striking jumping-off point for analyzing public discourse after Sept. 11.

"I had spent a lot of time in the United States both before and after 9/11," says Range. "I thought the presentation of a link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein so extraordinary that I had to find the most arresting way of posing questions about the prosecution of the war in Iraq and exploring some of its fallout."

Range designed a final plot turn that hinges on the despair of a father whose two sons served in Iraq. He thinks the greatest contribution he can make to the continuing dialogue on Iraq is to create empathy and understanding for returning veterans.

"I spoke to enormous numbers of veterans, and families of veterans, who described their disillusionment with the war," Range says. "Many of them really believed they were going out to Iraq because of 9/11. Then came the process of telling themselves that the war was about weapons of mass destruction, and then, when that turned out to be based on falsehoods, the effort to convince themselves that the war was about building democracy and freedom for the people of Iraq. I think it's been increasingly difficult for them to reconcile all that with the reality on the ground. The same is true in Britain, of course. Even though 9/11 was an American event and even though the primary architects of the war on terror were the members of the Bush administration, the consequences were absolutely global, so I think it's entirely legitimate for me as a Brit to make this film."

He says, "I knew it would be provocative, and I knew it had the potential to upset some people." His East Coast friends tried to caution him, "Are you sure that's a good idea?" while his West Coast friends said, "Oh, great, go for it!" But even he was surprised "to hear people like Hillary Clinton describing the film as sick and disgusting when they hadn't seen it - quite remarkable when you consider that the story grows out of a rush to judgment and here we have people condemning the film who know nothing about it. They thought the film would be some kind of liberal fantasy or wish fulfillment or incitement. Anyone who sees the film will see that it isn't."

(Several theater chains will not play the movie, and a couple of cable networks, as well as NPR, have rejected the movie's ads. The film won the International Critics Award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival.)

Range's sometimes startling objectivity jibes with his background. He studied medicine as an undergraduate at Bristol University (in Southwest England), then earned a postgraduate diploma in journalism at Cardiff University (in Wales). "I've always been very passionate about writing. I've always tried to write bits of fiction: largely, at first, to get through the pain of undergraduate medicine. But, funnily enough, I think a lot of the skills you learn as a doctor - how to take a good case history, how to chart a patient - feed into the same skills one uses as a journalist."

His background as a journalist led to his becoming a filmmaker. "I worked for a wire agency, then gradually started doing more broadcast work; I did a lot of stories from the States, from the West Coast, both San Francisco and Los Angeles, including news features on the juvenile justice system."

He had already begun directing fact-based TV dramas as well as documentaries when the BBC asked him to make a film on the conversation-stopping subject of "integrated transport policy." For Range, it was as if the network had asked him "to jump off a tall building. It was a thoroughly unappealing prospect because you really can't think of anything much more dull for a starting point."

That's when Range hit on the "retrospective documentary" form. He imagined "the worst-case scenario" of the UK's enduring a rail strike, massive traffic jams and an aerial catastrophe all on one day, then organized his film as a future documentary depicting the multiple calamities in flashback. He called it The Day Britain Stopped, and it won him a 2003 BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nomination for best new director.

"It wasn't too much of a stretch of the imagination for most people in Britain," says Range, "because this was a time when we'd had five fatal rail accidents in as many years; if you've ever gone on public transport in Britain you know that it tends to collapse on a fairly regular basis. The fake documentary was just a very interesting way of storytelling and imagining a possible future that didn't feel like sci-fi. Both The Day Britain Stopped and Death of a President are about using the near future to look at things that have already happened or things that are happening right now."

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