A "W" and a Loss

Fictive documentary about president's assassination loses steam midway

Movies Reviews Gabriel Range
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A "W" and a Loss

Director: Gabriel Range
Writers: Gabriel Range, Simon finch
Cinematography: Graham Smith
Starring: Hend Ayoub, Brian Boland, Becky Ann Baker, Robert Mangiardi
Studio/Running Time: Lion's Gate/film Four, 90 mins.

I swear, DVDs must be the end of all ambition. The pride, sweat and determination that go into creating a feature-length film are frequently obscured by the audio/visual compression, miniature packaging and time-wasting bonus features that supposedly expand upon the original concept. DVDs sell, and that’s about it. Occasionally a film arises that plays right into the weaknesses of the medium by offering uneven content to viewers predisposed to the wily pleasures of chapter-skipping, camera-angle changing and mid-film pizza delivery.

So it goes for Gabriel Range’s highly controversial Death Of A President, although the lucky few who caught its award-winning debut at the 2006 Toronto International film Festival might disagree. Perhaps they gaped in awe at the spectacle unfolding on the big screen, the unbelievably audacious premise pulsing along, its authoritative boom dampening the roar of the media circus pounding at the theater doors. Maybe the thrill of having just witnessed such a cinematic coup intensified as word leaked that three major theater chains in the U.S. had refused to screen it, that even mildly left-leaning outlets like NPR and CNN had declined any sponsorship or advertisement due to its supposedly extreme and volatile content. Maybe.

All that dust has long since settled, and D.O.A.P. (as the Torontonians referred to it up until its first screening, possibly for fear of invasion from Michigan or higher tariffs on maple syrup), on DVD, reveals itself not as sacrilege but merely a half-baked thriller concerning the well-worn theme of presidential assassination. It relies heavily and quite effectively on the techniques of Michael Moore, Ridley Scott and—when the going gets emotional—Ken Burns.

The initial brouhaha surrounding the film’s release was generated by the target of its fictional violence, the very much alive and equally controversial George W. Bush. In the film, Bush’s demise occurs after a tense appearance in Chicago that’s plagued by vast mobs of protesters, some of whom have already broken police barricades and halted the Presidential motorcade. It is, almost literally, a heart-stopping scene. What happens next should be the film’s defining moment. Really, it should.

But, with the brief report of a gunshot, D.O.A.P. uncoils its python-tight hold and lapses into ineffectual mockumentary. The President is dead. Without a central villain or potential savior on which to focus, attentions begin to wander between the auxiliary characters and a myriad of possible explanations for the horrible act. Once the trigger’s been pulled, no central player emerges to make any sense of the event for the audience. (Surely Kevin Costner was available, no?) Instead, four stereotypical suspects in the killing are quickly tossed out for perusal, along with a vague thread about President Cheney (yikes!) possibly engaging in some Syrian butt-kicking.

But none of it amounts to much, or certainly not enough to match the ferocity of the film’s opening thrust. D.O.A.P.’s first 40 minutes are brilliant, and editor Brand Thumim should be given extra credit for the exhilarating pace. He masterfully orchestrates a quickly spiraling tension, deftly juxtaposing found and archival footage with staged scenes of the protesters and the Presidential entourage. This all contrasts nicely with scripted interviews involving a newspaper correspondent, a Secret Service agent, a speechwriter and the wife of an eventual suspect. The resulting syncopation serves to humanize the President, sympathetically framing his plight as a mere mortal in the middle of a highly combustible situation. Range and Thumim wisely avoid the temptation to take cheap shots with the stock footage. Human violence toward the cause of perceived justice is the film’s main culprit.

D.O.A.P.’s obvious a?nity for reality television is accentuated on the small screen, its second generation and superimposed footage robbed of some of the epic quality provided by the theater. The interviews and commentaries in the bonus features shed some light on the process without sounding self-congratulatory, but the O-Ring packaging figures a bit too heavily into the $27.99 price tag. Consult your Netflix queue and put the money toward a ticket to Toronto next year instead.