Two new films opening this week rely on broken taboos to draw viewers into theaters. In Gabriel Range's mockumentary Death of a President, we are invited to imagine the assassination of George W. Bush at the hands of a sniper. In his art house snuff film The Bridge, Eric Steel shows all-too-real footage of human bodies hurtling to their death from the Golden Gate Bridge. Both filmmakers claim that they're eager to provoke discussion on their respective topics--the War on Terror, suicide--but it turns out that they have very little to say once the shock value wears off.
Death of a President begins as a compelling recreation of a TV documentary about the October 2007 assassination of George Bush. The film is skillfully crafted; real archival footage segues smoothly into digitally faked shots, and actors stand in as believable talking heads: Bushs adoring speechwriter, the retired head of the Secret Service, the forensics expert who is hedging doubts, the activist who can barely hide his glee.
Death of a President: The Pernicious Effects of Violence
The BridgeImage © IFC Films
After a first-act buildup in which we see real footage of President Bush giving a speech at a Chicago hotel besieged by protesters, he is gunned down JFK-style by a sniper. But instead of using the murder as a jumping-off point for wild speculation, Range employs it as metaphor for our present moment. After the President expires, the usual suspects are put into stress positions; Cheney is itching to attack a middle eastern country, and the Patriot Act is extended. Sound familiar?
At a loss as to what exactly the point of Death of a President was, I turned to the press notes, where Range talks about trying to create an opportunity to arouse discussion about the impact of 9/11 on American life, about showing "the pernicious effects of violence, while being relatively balanced and not overly partisan. It seems to me that 9/11 itself furnished us with every opportunity we ever needed to talk about 9/11, and anybody interested in the pernicious effects of violence just has to turn on CNN. By aiming for a relatively balanced point of view, the filmmakers wasted an opportunity to add to the discussion of Amercia's response to the September 11 attacks.
The Bridge: Voyeurism is Participation
Unlike terrorism, suicide is a taboo topic that gets little public attention, and in his film The Bridge, Eric Steel courageously attempts to address some of the surrounding questions. Is it a sin? Is it cowardly? Do we have the right to "save" someone who wants to die? Inspired by a New Yorker article about the special magnetism that makes the Golden Gate the most popular suicide spot in America, Steel aimed two cameras at the structure and filmed every daylight hour for an entire year, trusting the laws of averages that dictated he would at least catch a few jumps on tape-and he did. In addition to shaky footage of people plummeting from the railing into the bay below, the film consists of interviews with the families, friends, witnesses, and even one survivor who rediscovered his will to live in mid-air. The resulting film is compelling if exploitative (Steel saves the best jump for last) but raises many more questions than it is willing to answer. The Bridge creates a space for a discussion, and then avoids making any case in particular.
In quantum physics, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle suggests that one cannot observe a phenomenon without influencing it. (Or, as Stephen Kent Jusick put it in Shortbus: "Voyeurism is participation.") A better understanding of this principle would have helped The Bridge, too: by observing what he did, Steel and his team became part of the story, for better or worse. The decision to keep the process of filming out of the film robs it of too much context. At a post-screening Q&A, Steel fielded many questions about the non-existent barrier, the local politics surrounding the bridge, his difficulties in recognizing potential jumpers, the delays in alerting the police to intervene--all fascinating directions that would have helped to give The Bridge more specificity and traction. Sometimes, just raising a topic isn't enough.