Toronto Film Festival

The festival's hottest movie imagines the assassination of George W. Bush. Plus: The new Dixie Chicks film is a rousing shout of defiance.

Published September 13, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Because anyone who works in the media these days has to pursue what's hot, I began the day Tuesday with a faux documentary and ended it, thankfully, with the real deal. There's been so much buzz here around U.K. filmmaker Gabriel Range's ersatz documentary, "Death of a President" -- in the Toronto program notes and schedules, it has been coyly referred to by its less-incendiary acronym, "D.O.A.P." -- that most journalists and critics attending the festival knew they'd have to arrive extremely early for the screening. As it shook out, perhaps as many as half of those who had lined up were turned away.

"Death of a President" has been roundly excoriated by conservatives (even before anyone had actually seen it, of course) because it blends fictional footage and real news clips, touched up with bits of CGI, to fashion a fake documentary depicting the assassination of George W. Bush and its aftermath. In the movie's scenario, the president has come to Chicago to speak at a business luncheon, and upon his arrival, he's greeted by a crowd of surly protesters -- the suggestion being that everyone hates him so much, just about anyone might be a potential assassin. When the president emerges from the luncheon, he's felled by a sniper's bullet. The moment is swift and, for what it's worth, deftly handled -- except that Range can't help adding cheesy action-movie music as chaos erupts and ambulances and other vehicles rush to and from the scene. Is this serious political commentary, or an episode of "ChiPs"?

The president dies a few hours later. But the assassin is still at large, and the authorities have to pin the crime on someone. In this alternative universe, actors portray close (fictional) presidential associates, FBI officials, police commissioners and Secret Service men, relaying their impressions and observations about what happened on that day and their ideas about who may have committed the deed. A presidential advisor and speechwriter -- a pleasant-looking woman with a round face and bright orange hair -- speaks glowingly of how charismatic the president could be in front of a live crowd, and eventually winds around to asserting, her eyes all glassy and robotic, that he surely was doing God's work. Another bland-looking official explains that, sure, the first people you'd look at as suspects would be people with Arabic-sounding names. It's not racist, he claims, practically shrugging. "It's just common sense."

In other words, "Death of a President" offers nothing but predigested ideas, spouted not by people but by stereotypes. The movie doesn't make you think; it just confirms what you already think you know. The picture is clearly geared to liberal audiences, and it plays to its crowd like a preacher at a revival meeting. But instead of guiding us toward any nuanced thought or complicated moral issues, Range merely outlines the kind of clichéd possibilities that most reasonably intelligent, left-leaning individuals could scrawl on a cocktail napkin in three minutes. In Range's puny vision, if the president were shot, any or all of the following would be likely to happen: The list of suspects would tilt heavily toward individuals with Arabic-sounding names; the administration would immediately look to blame al-Qaida, or, barring that, Syria; innocent people would be locked up, just because the evidence against them happened to be convenient; the Patriot Act would be immediately amended to restrict Americans' civil liberties even further; and through it all, white guys in suits would talk tough and throw their power around, because that's just what white guys do.

The picture is designed to make us cluck-cluck with disapproval at each successive revelation, patting ourselves on the back for being hip to the Bush administration's deceptions and manipulations (as if it takes any sort of brain trust to figure out that these cowboys are bad news, and our country is in dire straits). Range's M.O. is to manufacture injustice so he can step in heroically to document it, and a good portion of the audience I saw the movie with seemed to buy in to this ruse: I could sense waves of self-congratulation rippling across the crowd, and a good portion applauded at the end.

Dramatically, the film is a snooze. And even though the phony-documentary effects are pretty smoothly executed, on the whole the picture isn't even put together in a particularly coherent way. It's a stunt more than a movie, and if this is what's passing for intelligent liberal thought in this (or any other) country, we're really in trouble. What's upsetting about the flap surrounding this picture -- which, it was announced on Monday, was picked up for distribution by Newmarket Films -- isn't that conservatives are offended by it; it's that liberals aren't. Why do you think they call it D.O.A.P.?

* * *

In 1976 Barbara Kopple made -- and won an Academy Award for -- a stunning documentary called "Harlan County, USA," which chronicled a long-running (and deadly) strike among coal miners in Kentucky. We're supposedly living in a golden age of lefty documentary filmmaking, and there have certainly been some pretty solid ones over the past few years. Even so, watching "Harlan County, USA" today is enough to make you feel wistful. Kopple's brand of liberalism is supple, subtle and strong: There's no blowhard rhetoric in "Harlan County," no self-congratulatory posturing or patronizing head patting. Kopple simply focuses on the stories -- and the faces -- of the people involved in this excruciating strike, shaping the material with a light but confident touch. "Harlan County, USA" is timeless, and extraordinary.

The difference between the very real "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing" -- which Kopple co-directed with Cecilia Peck, who has produced several of Kopple's projects over the past few years -- and the very false "Death of a President" is the difference between having a sensibility and wielding a cudgel. "Shut Up and Sing" follows the odyssey of the Dixie Chicks -- Martie Maguire, Emily Robison and Natalie Maines -- after Maines made that infamous remark about George W. Bush during a 2003 performance at Shepherd's Bush Empire in London. The Iraq war was just rolling to a start, and Maines, feeling frustrated and helpless, shared her anxiety with the crowd: "We don't want this war, this violence." And then, "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

Everyone knows what happened next: The Chicks lost, and never recovered, a major chunk of their fan base. But "Shut Up and Sing" fills out the story, from the center to the edges, with glorious brushstrokes, showing us in vivid detail how one simple sentence can change the course of a career -- and of a life.

Kopple and Peck follow the Chicks on the road, showing them yakking and giggling backstage in various states of dishabille, their eyes accented with Cleopatra-style stage makeup, their hair rolled up in curlers the size of soup cans. It all looks like great fun, particularly considering the way the filmmakers capture the deep affection these women feel for one another: Maguire and Robison are sisters, and Maines might as well be family, too. But the picture captures something far more complex than the usual "Sisterhood is powerful" bromides. In one remarkable sequence, Maguire explains how it pains her that Natalie still feels guilty for making that remark in the first place, for kick-starting the series of events that changed the course of the group's career. Maguire says she doesn't want Maines to worry about this -- it is, she believes, not the worst thing that could have happened, but the best -- but she can't finish the thought without dissolving into tears. The sequence gets at something vital and indefinable about the women's relationship, at the way their shared experience bonds them even more than blood.

Maines herself is a firecracker. The group's manager, Simon Renshaw, benevolent and ever present, is always guiding the women with judicious advice (even if he also enjoys, not so secretly, the commotion Maines has stirred up). Still, it's his job to keep things running smoothly, and he tries. But when the four of them meet for serious talks, and he begins to patiently counsel restraint or tact, you can see Maines practically wriggling in her seat before blurting something out: "I don't care -- we were right!" she'll say. Or she'll argue, defiantly, that she doesn't see why they should have to curry favor with radio stations to get airplay. There's no holding back with Maines. As Maguire told the indecently smug Diane Sawyer in a 2003 interview, Dixie Chicks fans don't expect Maines to change to suit their expectations. "They like her the way she is."

"Shut Up and Sing" is a shout of defiance, a chronicle of the price we have to be willing to pay to stand up for what we believe in. (In the Dixie Chicks' case, that price included death threats.) But the movie is politically potent precisely because it's not solely about politics. This isn't a picture filled with speechifying; it's a movie about people's lives. The Dixie Chicks are all working moms with jobs. Their husbands often handle much of the day-to-day childcare. (Of course, the Chicks are rich enough to have nannies, and so they do.) These women are clearly in an income bracket that means they don't exactly qualify as regular folk, but they don't fit into any traditional mold. They essentially live as millions of American working women do, balancing jobs and a family, trying to hold everything together even as the world seems to be falling apart around them. Their politics inform their lives and help shape who they are. They're engaged with the world in a way that defies facile red state/blue state divisions or, worse, apathy born of discouragement. They're true, old-fashioned liberals in the sense that they refuse to yield to hopelessness or lazy cynicism.

I'm glad I saw "Shut Up and Sing" not at a press screening, but at a public screening with an audience of regular moviegoers, nearly all of whom seemed very excited to be there. Toronto has always been extremely supportive of the Chicks, and the audience cheered every time the city's name was mentioned. But one thing troubled me: There's a scene in "Shut Up and Sing" that documents the photo shoot the Chicks did for the cover of Entertainment Weekly, in which they posed nude with words like "Traitor," "Dixie Sluts" and "Saddam's Angels" spelled out in black letters on their skin.

For my money, that E.W. cover is one of the slyest and wittiest the magazine has ever done. (And it's beautiful to look at, too.) The sequence shows us the Dixie Chicks' publicist arguing with the photographer on the shoot, railing against the idea of her clients' bodies being emblazoned with words she found derogatory -- she didn't trust readers to get it. When she blurted out, "I think you're giving too much credit to the American public. They're not that smart," the audience -- an audience of Canadians -- cheered.

That cheering was distressing for reasons that have nothing to do with my being an oversensitive American. The unfortunate reality is that a lot of the people who burned Dixie Chicks CDs, waved anti-Chicks placards filled with misspellings, and called radio stations to express their disapproval and displeasure were Southerners, always an easy mark for people who want examples of "dumb" Americans. (Even within the States, there are plenty of people who consider "rednecks" and "Southerners" interchangeable.) But I suspect it gave the filmmakers no pleasure to have to document this particular slice of American citizenry: So many of Kopple's movies are about Americans -- and, in some cases, Southerners specifically -- locating the best in themselves, standing up to injustice and mistreatment.

When that audience cheered, just for a moment, I felt I was sitting with that "D.O.A.P." crowd again -- a bunch of smart alecks who were happy to have something they could feel superior to. Kopple's work has never stooped to that, and it's a sensibility Peck obviously shares. But that derisive laughter was, thankfully, just a brief blip and not enough to mar the evening. This audience loved "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing," and I did, too. It's democracy, in words, music and pictures.

* * *

Although the festival runs through the weekend, this is my last day in Toronto, and it has suddenly hit me that for every festival a critic goes to, there's also a parallel phantom festival made up of the movies he or she didn't get to see. Scheduling, poor timing and/or general mishigas prevented me from seeing Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book"; "Ten Canoes," an Australian picture, directed by Rolf de Heer, made with the collaboration of an aboriginal community; Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"; So Yong Kim's "In Between Days"; the omnibus picture "Paris, je t'aime"; Jafar Panahi's "Offside"; Ron Mann's documentary about Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, "Tales of the Rat Fink"; and "Black Sheep," a New Zealand horror film about killer sheep. And that's just for starters.

For such a huge, sprawling festival, this one seems surprisingly well coordinated, although I did get shut out of several screenings even though I had allowed plenty of time to queue up, and I spoke with many other critics who had the same problem. Veteran festival-goers have told me that this isn't usually the case at Toronto; they suspected that more industry people were issued passes this year, and since seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, that simply means more competition for seats. Still, it's frustrating that critics and journalists trying to cover the festival were so often shut out. In a culture that's quickly turning the experience of seeing movies on the big screen into a quaint novelty, the press is one of the film industry's most valuable allies in spreading the word.

Even so, it's heartening to be around so many people -- festival organizers and volunteers, programmers, critics and journalists of all stripes and, last but certainly not least, the many Toronto residents who come out to see festival pictures -- who care so deeply about movies. At a press screening the other night, just as the lights began to dim, a fellow New Yorker with whom I was sitting whispered a last-minute invocation to us all: "Bon film!" I love the hopefulness of that expression, its assertion that we deserve to be engaged or entertained -- but also the way it hints that it's our responsibility to open ourselves to the experience before us.

Whenever I get into those dreaded books-vs.-movies arguments, I still come up remarkably often against people who see moviegoing as passive when it's actually frighteningly interactive: The experience of reading images can be just as potent as that of reading words -- although that all depends, of course, on how open you are to the images in the first place. So as the autumn movie season begins, and as we hurtle toward the dozens of pictures big and small that clamor for our attention over the holiday months, let's hold out hope that the movies will be worthy of the effort we bring to them. Happy reading, and bon film.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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