Sunday, May 25, 2008

Matlock Meets Lee Harvey Oswald

Blogs are supposed to be great for their immediacy and ability to cover breaking, current controversies.

As evidenced by my popular culture reviews on this blog, I clearly have not gotten that memo. But I press on, undeterred.

"Death Of A President" was a darling of international film critics and the most controversial film of 2006, lambasted by all sides of the U.S. political divide. Hillary Clinton described it as despicable. It was banned by several top U.S. cinema chains.

The source of the controversy is that it revolves around the assassination of President George W. Bush after a Chicago speech in October 2007. Those of you who have even a tenuous grasp on reality will realize that President Bush is alive and was not shot in Chicago in October of last year. The CGI effects are respectable enough to make the footage look realistic enough.

But the fatal flaw to this highly controversial film: it wastes the controversy.

If you are going to make that kind of film, it better be worth it. It needs to be very original and make solid points. Yet this film only glides across its strongest points to be a B-level murder mystery.

The film references President Cheney using his predecessor's death to have Congress unanimously pass PATRIOT Act III to give law enforcement more tools to root out terrorism. But the film never explains what those tools are. Can law enforcement now listen to all phone calls all the time? Can it open your mail? Can law enforcement beat you to within an inch of your life simply because you are an Arab who goes to a mosque every day? Or does PAIII simply streamline processes? We never find out. The fertile ground of how civil liberties are protected (or not) in the wake of cataclysmic events is an extremely minor plot point.

And when the suspected assassin is a Syrian, the film gives us about two minutes on the saber-rattling between the U.S. and Syria as well as President Cheney's infatuation with a Syrian dissident in the U.S. who claims that he saw President Bush's name on a hit list. Any meaningful exploration of the Bush-Cheney foreign policy and its formulations is thrown aside.

For all of its skill and controversy, the film makes a mistake that Matlock never did. This murder mystery breaks one of the cardinal rules of the genre: the real killer has to be someone introduced early on. In every Matlock episode, we met the real killer long before the wise defense lawyer ever got that person up on the stand to confess at the 58 minute mark. This film is like a Matlock episode if you had the Muslim guy as Matlock's defendant, the disaffected veteran as the main suspect to be the real killer and the disaffected veteran's father as the real killer, only we don't even meet the father until the 56 minute mark. That would be an amazingly bad Matlock episode, yet that is what we have here.

Moral of Death of a President: If someone shoots the President, the Muslim guy will get blamed. It is a movie that uses controversy to wallpaper over two-dimensional characters, a lack of originality and a superficial knowledge of the issues. I give it zero stars, not because of the controversy, but because the controversy is wasted on a film unworthy of the attention.