Matt Drudge hasn't seen Death of a President, and neither have I. I'm waiting to see the movie before handing down a verdict on its inevitable pros and cons; Drudge's verdict on the British-made film (scheduled to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival later this month) was splattered across his front page the second he heard about it. "SHOCK" screamed the Drudge Report, in terms the man with the hat usually reserves for Hollywood-bashing Chris Rock gaffes. "PRESIDENT BUSH ASSASSINATED IN NEW MOVIE."
Within a day everyone knew about Gabriel Range's film, a mockumentary chronicling the fateful day in 2007 when the commander in chief moseyed out of a Chicago rally, rimmed by anti-war goons, and took one in the gut from a Syrian gunman. The promotional still fronted by Drudge captures the fatal moment; Secret Service scrambling with guns drawn, civilians running and screaming, Bush clutching and wheezing as if he's swallowed the world's largest peanut. The image is meant to evoke those terrible grainy shots of Bobby Kennedy on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel, and it succeeds; the shot is familiar, freakish, and arresting all at once.
It also succeeded at stoking controversy. It took the Texas Republican Party a day to denounce the film, beseech screeners not to show it in the States, and declare that "the greater reality is that terrorism still exists in our world." (Will a presidential snuff film be distributable when the Islamofascists finally come to the treaty table?) From ground zero in London, Eric Staal of Republicans Abroad declared, "It is an appalling way to treat the head of state of another country." The White House commented that it would not dignify TDoaP with a comment.
And the harshest denunciations came from people who aren't even paid to like the president. Rush Limbaugh looked down from his happy cloud and saw an "age of insanity," predicting that Democrats and bloggers would "demand that elected politicians actually endorse the movie, at their own peril if they don't." CNN correspondent Louise Schiavone took a more nuanced, objective take, reporting that "the dry insistence of the British filmmaker that he's seeking a foreign policy discussion rings hollow in a nation that has suffered several wrenching assassinations." At his blog, My Man Adam director Roger L. Simon raged against Range's "upmarket political porn."
"I would ask Messrs. [film promoter Peter] Dale and Range (the filmmaker) how they would feel about viewing a 'sophisticated' docudrama of themselves being assassinated in 2007," Simon typed. "Horrified, perhaps? Maybe scared out of their knickers that someone would be encouraged to follow the film's example?"
A stupid question is always a good way to start a discussion, so let's start it there. The hypothetical murders of a president and of two British artists are completely incomparable. Dale and Range are more famous than they were last week, but they're not famous. They don't influence world politics. It is completely uninteresting, unless you're a bitter British screenwriter, to imagine a world without two D-list filmmakers. Perhaps Rush Limbaugh would have had a slow Thursday and filled the 2 p.m. block pillorying Rosie O'Donnell's blog. Not much else would change.
But George W. Bush, like any sitting president, is simultaneously the most powerful and most famous man on earth. Everything he does and says is news. In the words Aaron Sorkin gave his West Wing President Jed Bartlet, the POTUS is a "human starting gun" with incomparable influence over the United States and the world.
So what would the world be like if George W. Bush were removed from it? What would happen if he were killed by one of the members of the "religion of peace" he's tried desperately not to indict, against the grumblings of many hawks, as he's waged a war on Muslim terrorism? That's the question Range claims to be asking in the promotional material that makes up the sum of what Drudge, Rush, and the rest of us know about the film.
Explanations from Range's spokespeople that the film will explore "how America has been affected by the War on Terror" sound suspiciously like the kind of high-minded folderol that has girded previous death-to-Bush works like Nicholson Baker's novel Checkpoint. But the director is only the latest artist to try and interpret history by subtracting one of its pivotal actors. The counterfactual study of history—asking "what if?"—is engaged in by science fiction authors only a little more frequently than it's engaged in by serious historians. If you believe that powerful men can change history, it's a fascinating exercise. It crystallizes the moments when history turned; it clarifies the influence of factors that may otherwise be lost in the grand narrative. Historians struggle to come up with a better exercise than Bertrand Russell's 1934 speculation that "it may be maintained quite plausibly that if Henry VIII had not fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, the United States would not now exist." But it's a worthwhile struggle that's teased out the historical importance of the timing of D-Day, the make-or-break nature of Robert E. Lee's push into Pennsylvania, and the impact of Lee Harvey Oswald's bullets.
When history and Great Men are stretched and pulled in science fiction, as in Death of a President, the goals are usually the same. The assassinations are devices for authors to explore how culture and history would change minus their pivotal men. Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle is the high achievement in this genre. Dick allowed Guiseppe Zangara to kill Franklin Roosevelt not because he was paralyzed by FDR Derangement Syndrome, but because he wanted to explore the effects of fascism on the human soul, of conquest on the American character. The 2003 mockumentary Nothing So Strange (an even more direct antecedent of Death of a President, as it too engaged not in counterfactual history but in speculation about ongoing events) dramatized the assassination of Bill Gates. Brian Flemming used this plot point not (as Microsoft complained at the time) because he was an anti-Microsoft zealot, but as a real-world hook to explore media gullibility, groupthink, and the futility of conspiracy theorists. It could have worked without Bill Gates; it couldn't have worked without some real-world icon's splattered brains gluing the themes together.
Many of the same people huffing and puffing about Death of a President regularly engage in counterfactual speculation that's only a little less grisly. The New York Times has exposed a secret wiretapping program? Well, what if Pinch Sulzberger had been around in 1944 and blabbed Ike's invasion plans on A1? Some people think we can sit down and make a deal with Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad or Mahmoud Ahmednejad? Well, what if Kofi Annan or Jacques Chirac or 60 percent of the American people had met with Hitler in Munich?
"But we're not talking about killing any world leaders," critics could argue. "Death of a President puts ideas in peoples' heads!" Really? Is there any room left in there? Does anyone believe that a would-be John Hinckley has been sitting peacefully in his parents' basement for five and a half years, massaging his photos of Jodie Foster (by now, maybe it's Scarlett Johansson), and that the idea of assassinating the president didn't occur to him until he heard of a British movie that's screening in Canada?
Just how much does an assassination-happy media environment endanger the president—who, it should be noted, has more people in his security detail than acted in Death of a President? (The incredible protection Bush enjoys allows us to compare a speculative tale like this to Dick's story; the chance of anyone doing harm to FDR is nonexistent, while the chance of it happening to Bush is merely negligible.) It's stunning to think that a president as boldly non-descript as Gerald Ford faced more serious threats to his life than George W. Bush, well before Taxi Driver, that hadith of assassination media, hit theaters. Neither Jimmy Carter nor Ronald Reagan ended up stuffed in the trunk of a car or posing in an SLA beret, despite the powerful temptations of the 1980 Bill Shatner vehicle The Kidnapping of the President. Bush's term, excepting some harebrained plots and one busted grenade, has been incident-free, despite the Baker book, Doogie Howser's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, 24's restless explorations of every variety of execucidal technique, the less-than-contagious Anti-Americansk Dans of Norwegian rappers Gatas Parlement, and countless other fictive Bush takedowns. Range's film will be a drop in that sea.
Actually, if Death of a President changes anything, it will probably to the president's credit. Anyone angry enough to consider killing Bush should consider the consequences of an unpopular, struggling president turned into a martyr overnight. An investigation centering on a Syrian assassin would darken the skies over the Middle East; President Richard B. Cheney would have more political capital than he knew what to do with. PATRIOT Acts II through X would pass without much fuss. Any would-be Bushkiller who hadn't thought this through before The Death of a President certainly has now.
I should be careful, since I (like Rush and Drudge etc) haven't seen the movie, and I don't want to preemptively endorse another Ishtar or The Wicker Man remake. And I won't argue that some anti-Bush animus went into Grange's brainstorming and the film's financing. But there are never too many ways of thinking about the war on terror. We need more stories like Death of a President, not less.