Can the Mockumentary Truly Work as Good Fiction?

From a technical standpoint, “Death of a President” is a remarkable little film, the “mockumentary” of what might have happened had the anti-war and anti-America movements in the U.S. and abroad led to actual assassination attempts. The film commands a modest budget, but is still able to manipulate real footage of key political figures in ways far more striking than those at-the-time revolutionary clips from “Forrest Gump” fifteen years ago. Kudos to the technical crew on this movie.

And from a social commentary standpoint, “Death of a President” also has some interesting things to say about protest and violence. If war brings unintended and tragic consequences (no matter the motivation behind the war), think of the consequences for the death of a major leader (again, no matter the motivation behind the killing). If a president were truly to be assassinated in this day and age, I agree with one of this film’s primary theses: there would be no end to the legislation enacted, and there would be a remarkable loss of civil liberties for the average citizen. Not to mention the racial hatred, the racial profiling, etc.

But technical achievements aside, and commentary aside, “Death of a President” just isn’t a captivating film…not after the first thirty or forty minutes anyway. Once the immediate aftermath of the assassination is over, we lose interest, but yet the film keeps going for another forty minutes. We don’t really care about the manhunt because we don’t really care about all of the phony characters. This is really the problem with “mockumentaries”: we aren’t “learning” anything, as we might in a real documentary, so in order to hold our interest, we’ve got to have some solid character development, and we’ve got to really have someone to root for. Without that, we’re just sort of learning a history lesson for a history that never happened, and…well…who cares?

On a slightly different note, though, I’m astounded to read about all of the commentators and critics and news outlets who declared this film to be “dangerous” and “inappropriate,” etc, without ever having seen it. Well. Maybe not astounded. Because there’s always political capital in criticizing other political statements. But I’m disappointed. Especially by the film critics. No, it’s not a good movie. But it *is* an attempt at art, an attempt at creating meaningful commentary out of fictional events, and the use of a real president as the victim is necessary (not gratuitous or exploitative) for the storytellers’ purpose. Personally, I think that the destruction of the White House in “Independence Day” (as amazing as that was, from a technical standpoint) was far more gratuitous, created as it was for the simple shock-and-awe value of seeing a treasured symbol destroyed.

Apparently, the entire film is online, and you can access it here.


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