By Scott Brown
Updated September 13, 2006 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Sometimes, the worst thing that can happen to a controversial film is a screening. Death of a President, a fictitious near-future doc with a massive subject (the assassination of George W. Bush) and massive, morbid media interest, is notable mostly for its smallness. It opens promisingly, with archival news footage of the president cunningly Gumped together in an ominous chronicle of his final day: a 2007 speech in Chicago, amidst heavy protests.

It’s pretty edge-of-the-seat stuff, actually, except for a few clunker lines about Dubya’s trademark certainty and complacency. (Yup, that’s my Bush, all right — after nearly seven years, we get the joke.) But after the actual assassination, the filmmakers quickly find themselves unable to comprehend the aftermath. They have neither the budget nor the vision to depict the frightening chaos of a suddenly beheaded America — the gnashing of teeth, the foot-in-mouth reactions and subsequent crucifixions, the Fox News tributes and harangues, the floundering of the left, the inevitable deification. None of this comes into play; in fact, as a friend pointed out, the whole thing seems to happen in a vacuum. It feels like local Cook County news, and to watch the mostly muted reactions of the fake interviewees, you wouldn’t guess at the gravity of the events they’re casually recounting. Instead of imagining what Bush might become in martyrdom — an unassailable god with his policies made Scripture — DoaP becomes CSI: Chicago, actually trying to solve its own fictional crime. Sure, there’s an obligatory bit on the ascent of Cheney (like he could ascend any higher), a mention of a newer, even more invasive Patriot Act, a nod to the suspension of civil liberties. But “Who shot Bush?” is the big question on the filmmakers’ minds — and probably the least relevant question they could have posed. It’s as if they forgot that these troubling events didn’t really happen. Let’s not even try to untangle the metapretzel of their narrative logic: Why, after an assassination, would any documentary filmmaker recount the event as an A&E–style true-crime whodunit? Especially if the world already knew whodunit? This isn’t suspense; it’s nonsense.

But most troubling of all, DoaP (snapped up by opprobrium-hungry Newmarket, distributor of The Passion of the Christ)seems to feel it’s teaching someone — Bush? his supporters? thehandful of cineastes who’ll actually see this thing? — a lesson.Bush’s death, as imagined here, is supposed to have a moral to it, akind of symmetry and justice. What a shockingly childish notion ofassassination! As if, even in a great democracy, this is the only way aregime can truly be deposed — with a bullet. Ideas by themselvesaren’t sufficient, it would seem; in fact, ideas aren’t even all thatinteresting, in art or governance. The filmmakers are simpatico withBush on this point.

DoaP couldn’t quite ruin my day, though, because I was stillriding high on documaker Barbara Kopple’s extraordinary Dixie Chicksdoc, Shut Up and Sing, a film about the politicization not ofart, but of the artist; a dissertation on the bureaucracy of celebrity;a subtle deconstruction of band-as-social-unit; everything, I’d say,but a harangue. For most viewers, it was our first time seeing footageof Natalie Maines’ infamous comment at the Shepherds Bush Empire inLondon. It looks remarkably anodyne now, obviously tossed off, hardlywhat anyone would refer to as fiery political speech. But revisitingthe firestorm it touched off makes us re-examine, with no small amountof shame, those inflamed days in the lead-up to the invasion. War feveris largely a thing of the past, but the Chicks were changed forever inthat instant, their careers essentially annihilated and remade. Kopplecaptures the journey from perfunctory apology to shock and dismay todefiance, and its resigned acceptance of its new image, an image madeall the more powerful because they so clearly did not choose it. It’s ajourney of painful rebirth. Oh, yes: Natalie, after reading aparticularly insipid quote from the president on the controversy, callsBush a “dumb f—.” Once again, this will be the only detail reported,and the Chicks can, in all likelihood (and dear God, in an electionyear), expect another wave of reflexive backlash from their vast armyof knee-jerk detractors. Natalie is the film’s brash de facto heroine,but the real heroics are supplied by her milder bandmates, Martie andEmily, stoics who stand by their fireplug frontwoman even when they’dprefer business as usual. It’s a remarkable portrait of artists (andbusinesswomen) under duress, and Kopple’s got a wonderfully honest eye.

More very soon…