The mockumentary genre is easily traceable to films such as This Is Spinal Tap, but a fictional news documentary using contemporary multimedia gear really has its roots in television; in particular, Peter Watkins' searing efforts for the BBC: Culloden (1964), The War Game (1965), and Watkins' American production, Punishment Park (1971).
American networks never really explored the genre to such brutal extent, although a few efforts – NBC's Special Bulletin (1983) and the syndicated Without Warning (1994) – used news gathering gear to simulate live TV broadcasts of a hostage taking/nuclear bomb threat, and an imminent meteor shower, respectively (though for the latter, stations used a viewer disclaimer before and after each ad break. Without Warning, in fact, was broadcast in tribute to Orson Welles' infamous 1938 Halloween radio play, in which H.G. Wells' tale of Martians attacking Earth was spun into a realistic and ongoing news feed.)
One nascent production that combined actual news footage intercut with actors is the syndicated Without Warning: Terror in the Towers (1993), recreating the events surrounding the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The production was still a docu-drama, but like the aforementioned films, it was shot on videotape to ensure fluid edits between real and dramatized footage. Certainly this film, unlike prior efforts, demonstrated how history could be recreated using extant footage and contemporary technology.
At the time, the look and feel of standard ENG gear for dramatic productions seemed kind of cheap – with everything else shot on film, dramatic performances on tape seemed out of place, if not theatrical – but the current boosts in technology have not only allowed news cameramen to film real events with a filmic look, but they've bridged the aesthetic continuity gap between current news archives and the improved filmic qualities of affordable digital cameras - basically enabling filmmakers to edit real and fictional footage into a fluid and dramatic work.
Within an American network scenario, such a production would be chopped apart by ads and disclaimers designed to minimize complains and nuisance lawsuits, so to really exploit the leap in technology, the only viable realm was movie theatres. It's unsurprising that the push was made by a group of British filmmakers (A&E often hired British crews to attack hot-button topics and sensitive subjects), but the real shock of Death of a President is the near-perfection of the whole endeavor.
In both of the DVD commentary tracks (which should have been edited into one to avoid factual duplication), director Gabriel Range (The Day Britain Stopped) describes the formal documentary tactics used to map out a narrative goal, seek out existing news footage and, using brilliant editorial techniques (many borrowed from fiction filmmaking, including the dialogue looping, continuity matching, and sound editing) craft what pretty much follows the standard format of investigative TV journalism augmented with familiar docu-drama episodes.
The filmmakers chose to rely on faces, words, and physical actions to tell their story – quite different from the graphs and animations that are generally used – and while that may give the film a more formal fictional feel, it's the short bursts of montages and mixed-media footage - cellphones, film, mini-DV, and high-def – that really contemporize the production.
Range and Finch wrote a script, but it too is performed by generally unknown actors in fairly natural fashion. A few deliveries do feel fake – Bush's speechwriter is too rehearsed in spots; the dialogue that wraps up the film is melodramatic; and Michael Reilly Burke, while very good as an intelligence head, is known from dozens of TV appearances, including 24, Season 5. Conversely, James Urbaniak as a ballistics expert is totally believable, and stands out among the many fake experts and affected personnel that are interviewed throughout the film to evoke the slow, factual assembly of events surrounding the assassination.
Also addressed – more so in the DVD's brief interview featurette with director/co-writer Range, co-writer Simon Finch, and editor Brad Thumim – is the reasoning behind the selection of a sitting U.S. President as the victim of their drama. Range simply felt he was fair game and makes no apologies, and while the film's isn't anti-American, in the second half does dramatize what happens to three people when a government suspends particular liberties and pursues suspects with a lesser regard to civic rights. Unlike the poster and DVD art, the actual killing isn't seen in detail, but that still doesn't reduce the effect of seeing a living political figure die onscreen through dramatic recreations and editorial manipulation. It just feels dirty and unfair.
Range admits to crossing a controversial and moral boundary, but there's no denying the move enabled the filmmakers to examine the impact of 9/11, the U.S. government's more radical shift to the Right, and heightened levels of paranoia and xenophobia from a present day vantage. Hindsight can render such examinations a bit too neat and perfect – years after John F. Kennedy's assassination and declassified government documents, we know the ripple effects of that tragedy – but playing the what-if game now makes it more potent & relevant, and guarantees Death of a President will rank, like Watkin's Punishment Park, as a vital time-capsule of an event, and a contemporary societal snapshot. More importantly, the film illustrates how the media resources that inform us daily are so utterly malleable.
Range's film is definitely a new hybrid, and one wonders what kind of beast it'll spawn in a few years - or maybe next year.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan