I’m guessing there are a couple of things Americans, no matter what their party affiliation or political ideology, really don't want to see in a movie. One would be the assassination of a sitting American president, and the other would be a black man getting pinned for his murder just to make a point about anti-Arab sentiment since Sept. 11.
But that hasn’t stopped British filmmaker Gabriel Range and his team from Film Four in Great Britain. Their film, “Death of a President,” which will air on television tomorrow night in the UK, was such a hot ticket last night in Toronto that publicists at the Paramount theater had to make a human chain to block out gate crashers. Weeks of hype had caused a frenzy, and there was talk of scalped tickets.
But as one potential distributor said to me as we went in, “What if it’s bad?” Whoops! We never thought of that, did we? Film Four makes very good documentaries in Britain, so the assumption was that there would be merit to this controversial film.
Maybe it’s me, folks. Maybe I’m not hip enough for “Death of a President.” I know there’s a point to this thing. As the writer and director said during the Q&A after the screening, they wanted to show our “rush to judgment” and how Arabs have been treated in the U.S. since the World Trade Center disaster. But this really sounds to me like stuff people who don’t live in New York and didn’t actually experience Sept. 11 might say from a safe distance.
In “Death of a President,” George W. Bush is murdered after making a speech in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2007. Outside the Sheraton Hotel there are massive, violent demonstrations that recall the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago more than anything of recent times.
The president’s motorcade is stopped by unruly protesters; the police don riot gear and use tear gas. It’s a bad scene, as the faux Secret Service agent who was protecting Bush recalls during the mockumentary part of the film.
I will cut to the chase. After Bush is killed and Dick Cheney becomes president, it takes about seven months for law enforcement to arrest a Syrian-American for the assassination. He’s tried and convicted. In the meantime, we meet a black soldier recently returned from Iraq. He is initially suspected but later dismissed. Then it turns out his brother died in the war, and their distraught father has killed himself because of it. The soldier goes through his father’s things and realizes that his grieving dad was Bush’s real killer. He held the president responsible for his son’s death.
There weren’t many African-Americans at last night’s screening, but I do suspect that the many people who fled the theater during the closing credits were Americans of all colors. When the lights went up, it was mostly people with foreign accents and a few Americans in the film business. There was no applause when the film ended, but there was a little clapping when the credits ended.
To compound things, security guards picked a fight with my friend Baz Bamigboye, the film critic for London’s Daily Mail, when he attempted to use his tape recorder for backup on note-taking during the Q&A. This resulted in a skirmish with nasty security guards in the theater who’d been patrolling the aisles during the screening looking for people with film cameras. I mean, what fun!
Rather than be ejected, we immediately appealed to the people who’d taken the stage: the filmmakers, as well as Noah Cowan, head of the Toronto Film Festival.
“They’re going to throw us out for taping the press conference,” this reporter said loudly, to which Cowan replied: “This isn’t a press conference.”
He was no help, whatsoever. Luckily, the filmmakers said they didn’t mind and the guards backed off, but the whole thing was very weird.
The filmmakers did say they went to Chicago twice and filmed President Bush — unbeknownst to him. This sort of makes their film a version of Steve Martin’s “Bowfinger” more than a documentary. They say they told the Chicago Police Department they were making a documentary, but never said it was about the assassination of President Bush.
Range and his crew manipulated the footage of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to make them into characters in their film. One woman in the audience raised her hand during the Q&A and made an interesting statement. She said: “It’s amazing how simple it is to make people seem like they’re saying things they’re not.”
The director, thinking at first this was a compliment, then realizing maybe it wasn’t, replied: “It’s not as simple as you think. It took us months.”
There are some big questions that have to be answered about this movie. One, will it give some crazy person the idea to go out and try to kill the president? I don’t know, maybe. I think there’s something tasteless about showing a sitting president in this light, whether you like him or not. The producers of the film told me they thought Bush looked sympathetic here, but I didn’t see that.
Their intention is to show him hoisted by his own petard, as it were; the ultimate victim of his Patriot Act. This doesn’t quite work, since “Death of a President” simply turns into a laborious episode of “CSI” rather than expanding the premise so we can see America post-Bush.
And then the revelation that Bush has been killed not by the Syrian but by an African-American seems like the companion statement to the new “Survivor” series — also produced by a Brit.
There’s a feeling of insensitivity here. For me, it overrode any sense of fair play. President Bush is already roundly criticized and well-mocked — whether it’s for his policies or his personal comportment — in the press, on comedy shows and in protests. “Death of a President” goes one step further and paints a target on his back.
The producers say they couldn’t make their character a fictional president because they wanted the movie to feel “current.” But by using Bush, they undercut their own point. Is it the act of profiling they want to expose, or is it really just Bush they want to annihilate?
That’s what potential distributors will have to think about before more Americans get to see “Death of a President” in the movie theaters.
The Toronto Film Festival? It’s a bit of a strange venue if you’ve already been to Sundance or Cannes this year.
Most of the excitement here is about films that have already made their marks elsewhere. Case in point: Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver.” Star Penelope Cruz and director Pedro are here doing a victory lap. They’re the biggest stars of the weekend. When I asked Pedro about winning another Oscar, he shushed me — as in don’t jinx it — but he did say, in his broken English, “Just in case, I am already on a diet!”
Cruz is so good in "Volver" that she will be nominated in the Best Actress category this year along with Helen Mirren ("Queen"), Renee Zellweger ("Mrs. Potter") and two unknown choices that could turn out to be Judi Dench ("Notes on a Scandal") and a player to be named later.
Penelope told me last night she’s still waiting for an American company to release “Banditas,” the Mexican movie she made with Salma Hayek last year.
And she did confirm her baby Suri sighting. “So there really is a baby?” I asked. “Yes, and they don’t like it when people say that,” she replied, tsking me with a reproaching finger.
Mexicans, meantime, are very in this year. Mexican director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde has a hit in his “Bella” starring Tammy Blanchard (who later this fall will make a splash in the new TV production of “Sybil”) and Eduardo Verastegui, who is like the Mexican Brad Pitt.
The rest of the cast, especially American-Dominican actor Manny Perez, is terrific, and the movie is charming. (Director Monteverde married ex-beauty queen/actress Ali Landry last April, two years after her 18-day marriage to “Saved by the Bell” actor Mario Lopez. It’s said they met in Bible class. Whew!)
And speaking of the real Brad Pitt, he’s been here and gone for the movie “Babel,” previously shown in Cannes to enthusiastic but mixed response.
Here, however, Babel has been a bigger deal for some reason — maybe because Brad was here for a minute. The official premiere of "Babel" brought out all the big agents from Hollywood and caused a traffic meltdown on the main drag and hundreds of autograph hounds lined the street facing Roy Thomson Hall ...
Pitt, however, disappointed the big-ticket diners at Bill Clinton’s umpteenth 60th birthday party Saturday night at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.
Indeed, no movie stars showed up unexpectedly at that party, only the scheduled performers —Billy Crystal, Jon Bon Jovi, James Taylor and Tim McGraw. Kevin Spacey apparently emceed, but there’s no way of really knowing, since no press was allowed inside other than a wire reporter from Canada.
The PR woman snarled at me prior to the dinner: “We’re not even letting in the New York Times!” She said there was no space for press, just the 600 diners who’d paid $2,000 apiece to see Bill, Hillary and Chelsea.
Chanel provided little gift bags, and each diner got a little glass globe that was engraved “Clinton Foundation” …
Also in the Fairmont but not invited to the Clinton dinner: much of the cast of Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration.” We ran into Michael McKeon, Michael Hitchcock and Jennifer Coolidge in the lobby, while Parker Posey was busy checking in with a musician presumed to be Ryan Adams. Guest and wife Jamie Lee Curtis are also here, and accepting kudos for the very funny send-up of the Oscar campaign season …
And spotted at the Four Seasons: Dustin Hoffman, James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Lynne and “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman.
The latter, thanks to his father’s investments, owns the property on which the Toronto Film Festival will now build their Cineplex and parking garage with a $100 million-plus endowment. In other words, prepare yourselves for a 2008 Reitman retrospective here with both "Ghostbusters" films, "Dave," "Meatballs," "Stripes," "Junior," "Twins" and "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" ...