The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a documentary about the Nixon administration's scheme to preempt the ex-Beatle's plan to present rock concerts across America that would register newly enfranchised young voters during the 1972 presidential race to defeat Nixon. Eight years later, the peace activist was assassinated shortly after Reagan was elected president. The U.S. vs. John Lennon opened September 15.
In All the King's Men Sean Penn portrays Willie Stark, a fictionalization of Huey P. Long, the Depression-era Louisiana governor and senator. Long's strong-arm tactics and "Share Our Wealth" populism, with its "Every Man a King" slogan, were so controversial that the state legislature attempted to impeach him, and Long was gunned down in 1935. All the King's Men opens September 22.
The Last King of Scotland is a biopic starring Forest Whitaker as the African dictator Idi Amin. During his brutal 1970s reign, 300,000 Ugandans were butchered and President Amin was the target of repeated attempts to whack him. The Last King of Scotland opens September 27 and is merely the latest in an eerie parade of assassins in features, documentaries, plays, television and books since September 11, 2001. Pop culture's chilling trend includes:
John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate, about a brainwashed veteran-turned-assassin, was remade in 2004, with Denzel Washington reprising Frank Sinatra's role. V for Vendetta, starring Natalie Portman, depicts terrorist and mass resistance against a futuristic fascist British state. After the London subway bombings in July 2005, V's November 2005 release was delayed until 2006.
In American Dreamz, Al-Qaeda-like Arabs conspire to hit Dennis Quaid, who plays a Bush-like president on an American Idol-type of reality TV show. The satire co-starring Hugh Grant, Willem Dafoe and Marcia Gary Harden debuted April 21. The following week, United 93 opened, depicting the flight believed to have been en route to Washington to carry out a suicide mission (perhaps targeting the White House) before it went down in Pennsylvania on September 11th. Oliver Stone's 9/11 blockbuster, World Trade Center, opened in August.
All the King's Men is a remake of 1949's Best Picture Oscar winner based on Robert Penn Warren's novel. Opinion is divided on whether Huey P. Long, the Louisiana politician who inspired King's, was a man of the Left or Right. Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was named after him. Interestingly, King's debuted at the Toronto Film Festival September 10, the same day as The Last King of Scotland and Death of a President, and like DOAP and the Lennon doc, played there on 9/11. Its all-star cast includes Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins and James Gandolfini (who, as HBO mafioso Tony Soprano, knows something about hits).
The Academy Award winning Penn is the son of a blacklisted director and one of Hollywood's most outspoken dissenters. King's is the third in Penn's "assassination trilogy" that includes 2004's The Assassination of Richard Nixon, featuring Penn as Samuel Bicke, a wannabe liquidator who - almost 30 years before 9/11 - attempted to hijack an airliner and fly it into the White House during Watergate. Penn's other assassin-related picture is Sydney Pollack's 2005 The Interpreter, co-starring Nicole Kidman.
In The Last King of Scotland dissidents try to mow President Amin down as his convoy drives near Kampala. Later, a Scottish doctor played by James MacAvoy (a fictionalized composite character inspired by three actual figures) attempts to poison Amin with bad medicine. Throughout the movie, Amin frets about opposition plots against him. After his 1979 overthrow, Amin went into exile in Saudi Arabia, where he died in 2003.
John Wilkes Booth - the granddaddy of American assassins - was portrayed by Raoul Walsh in D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation, and returns to the screen 2007 in Manhunt. Based on James Swanson's 2006 book subtitled The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, the movie stars Harrison Ford and is produced by Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction).
Also in 2007 Whitaker, Quaid and William Hurt co-star in Vantage Point, about an attempted presidential assassination.
On September 15, Lions Gate, which distributed Oscar winner Crash and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, released in the U.S.A. the documentary The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, chronicling the FBI/Nixon plot to deport the ex-Beatle because of Lennon's radical activism and music. The Nixon regime embroiled Lennon in deportation battles and foiled his planned voter registration drive/ concerts in a countercultural campaign to elect peace candidate Democrat George McGovern. As he reentered the limelight, Lennon was assassinated in 1980 at the dawn of Reagan's presidency. The Toronto Film Festival premiered the documentary September 9 (9 was Lennon's lucky number).
During 2004's Republic Convention in Manhattan, GOP delegates were offered comps to "I'm Gonna Kill the President! A Federal Offense". The zany Imagination Liberation Front's off-Broadway play portrays bumbling counterculture revolutionaries kidnapping the prez. As actors-cum-hostage-takers purport to actually dial the White House switchboard on a cell, spectators yell death threats against the chief executive. Minutes after this subversive scene during Offense's L.A. premiere, LAPD raided the production, arresting the cast, questioning, then dispersing, the audience. (Or did they? Playwright "Hieronymous Bang" said he and the actors spent the night behind bars, but a police spokeswoman denied the raid and bust.)
Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins - about successful and would-be presidential killers - returned to Broadway in 2004 and was Tony-nominated. Sex and the City's Mario Cantone portrayed Bicke, the same character Penn played in Nixon.
On the tube, the previously obscure Bicke was also the subject of a 2005 History Channel documentary. Squeaky Fromme, who tried whacking President Gerald Ford, was glimpsed in CBS' 2003 The Manson Family. The controversial The Path to 9/11 miniseries, which aired commercial-free September 10 and 11, 2006 on ABC also depicted attempted and successful liquidations.
HBO's Rome and ABC's Empire 2005 miniseries depicted Julius Caesar's "et tu" assassination. Last November C-SPAN aired the Lincoln Forum's annual symposium, devoted to discussing Lincoln's assassination, and featured some of the following authors on Book TV.
In 2003, Hill and Wang published Eric Rauchway's nonfiction book Murdering McKinley. In 2005, another major market publisher, Simon & Schuster, released Stephen Hunter and J.S. Bainbridge's American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out that Stopped It. That year, Simon & Schuster also printed Assassination Vacation, wherein Sarah Vowell visits sites associated with the Lincoln/Garfield/McKinley assassinations.
Why has this cavalcade of assassinations returned now in pop culture and what do they symbolize?
As in Death of a President, Nicholson refers to the current president in Checkpoint, his 2004 novel about a dissident plotting to murder Bush, as the implicit becomes explicit and metaphor gives way to meaning.
Death of a President stirred up a hornet's nest by daring to dramatize the unspeakable: George W. Bush's assassination. Predictably, talking heads tried to head this made-for-TV-movie off at the pass. On MSNBC outraged culture warrior Pat Buchanan expressed the opinion of most U.S. pundits that this portrayal of a hit on a sitting president was "out of bounds" for viewing in the land of the free. Commentators urged Democrats to join with Republicans in condemning it, while on Fox News GOP Congressman Peter King called on U.S. distributors not to screen the mockumentary. (On September 12 Reuters reported Newmarket Films, which had distributed Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ in 2004, inked a deal to distribute DOAP inside the USA.)
Death is a documentary-style production for Britain's Channel 4 scheduled to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival one day before 9/11's fifth anniversary, and to air on UK television in October. According to the UK's Daily Mirror,
In the film, set in 2007, Bush is shot dead after flying to Chicago to make a speech in the wake of massive anti-war protests.Death reportedly uses sophisticated cinematic special effects to superimpose Bush's actual face on a similarly built actor in the scene where the commander-in-chief is liquidated by a Syrian sniper.
Joel Surnow, executive producer/creator/writer of Fox's hit 24 spy series, said on CNN: "The only time in five years that we had anybody from the high levels of [conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch's] News Corp tell us not to do something was when we shot down Air Force One we couldn't kill the president. So the president survived the terrorist downing of his jet. The CNN reporter notes, "It goes to show that putting a president in danger, be it a fictional one or real one, is a huge taboo" and that "the fictional assassination of a sitting U.S. president is one line [TV/filmmakers] can't cross."
Well, not exactly. In "The Interpretation of Dreams" Sigmund Freud writes: "a dream is a (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish." The father of psychoanalysis expounds on thoughts and feelings that challenge and threaten the conscious mind. These ideas and desires aren't simply banished by the superego (the psyche's equivalent to network executives). Rather, through a compromise process called dream censorship with the id (the unrestrained self), repressed wishes reemerge as symbols, usually emanating from the unconscious during sleep.
Contemporary depictions of assassinated historical figures such as Caesar, Lincoln, Long, Lennon, etc., appear to be bushwhacking projections of the collective unconscious. Bush's cowboy-style "dead or alive," "with-us-or-against-us" and "bring-them-on" arrogance has dangerously alienated millions of his countrymen and people around the world. The Texan's approval ratings have sunk to Nixonian Watergate levels, around 30%. Administration blunders and precepts - WMDs, Iraq, Katrina, Dubai ports, preemptive war, warrantless surveillance, extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, threatened nuclear strikes, torture, etc., plus numerous GOP/government scandals - incite a frightening wave of anger at home and abroad.
During his September 19, 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called Bush a "world tyrant" and "the devil," and said the U.N. podium still smelled of "sulfur," because Bush had spoken there a day earlier. He added that it would take a "psychiatrist" to understand Bush's U.N. speech and that "the end of his days would be a nightmare." Chavez also complained:
"The only place where a person can ask for another head of state to be assassinated is the United States, which is what happened recently with the Reverend Pat Robertson, a very close friend of the White House. He publicly asked for my assassination and he's still walking the streets."(See the video here.)
In May 2005, The New York Times reported that a live grenade was thrown near Bush during his speech at Tbilisi, Georgia. On Nov. 22, 2005, USA Today reported Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was convicted by a Federal jury in Virginia of plotting to assassinate Bush. The Seattle Times reported Feb. 22, 2006 that three men of Arab background were arrested in Toledo on charges of plotting to kill U.S. troops in Iraq; one suspect, U.S. and Jordanian citizen Mohammad Zaki Amawi, was also charged with threatening to kill Bush. On March 27, Zacarias Moussaoui declared he was part of Al-Qaeda's 9/11 plot, and conspired with shoe-bomber Richard Reid to crash a fifth jet into the White House. Last December and April, intruders jumped the White House fence.
On September 18, 2006 a man crashed an SUV through a barricade at the U.S. Capitol Building. Packing a pistol, he then ran up the Capitol's steps and into the building where Congress meets. The armed man, identified as Carlos Greene, ran through "the Rotunda in the center of the Capitol and down a stairway into the basement," according to ABC News. He was apprehended in or near the Flag Room. The Capitol Building was briefly locked down. On September 14, President Bush met with the House Republican Conference and briefly spoke with reporters in the Capitol Building.
In All the King's Men, immediately after the legislature does not impeach Willie Stark, an assassin shoots the governor with a pistol in the Louisiana State Capitol Building.
In a statement, Death of a President's co-writer/director Gabriel Range contended the docu-drama is "a serious film which I hope will open up the debate on where current U.S. foreign and domestic polices are taking us."
On the Toronto Film Festival's website, filmfest co-director Noah Cowan wrote:
"Range is ultimately interested in addressing today's political issues through the lens of the future. Xenophobia, the hidden costs of war and the nature of civil liberties in a hyper-media age all come under the microscope Range simply seeks to explore the potential consequences that might follow from the President's policies and actions."
The fact that All the King's Men portrays an attempt to legally remove a chief executive is likewise newsworthy and intriguingly timed. The depiction of an impeachment imbroglio shortly before this November's midterm elections - when a threatened Democratic takeover of either or both houses would empower the opposition with subpoena power and the ability to launch congressional investigations into Bush that could result in impeachment - is strikingly symbolic. King's Hugo Chavez-like soak the rich attacks on oil companies at a time when prices have been skyrocketing at the pump are very timely. As are portrayals of the dictatorial tactics Penn's Willie Stark deploys, as Bush comes under fire for extreme security measures at Guantanamo, overseas secret prisons, torture, domestic surveillance, preemptive war, signing statements and other arguably autocratic measures. Ditto the allegations of personal corruption. (Senator Huey Long was shot dead as he prepared to challenge FDR in the 1936 presidential election.)
To publicly explore the theme of assassination is not to advocate it, but to sound a warning. After Death of a Presidentopened at Toronto, Range told Reuters: "We portrayed the horror of assassination. ... I don't think anyone would get the idea of assassinating Bush from this film." Certainly, a hit on President Bush would be a national, as well as personal, tragedy that would plunge America, and perhaps the world, into chaos. Radicals should beware of two terrifying words: "President Cheney."
Artists often have their fingers on the collective unconscious' pulse. In From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer revealed that Germany's pre-war screen procession of monsters were premonitions of Nazism. Similarly, today's chilling pop culture obsessions are warnings from the zeitgeist. Bush needs to heed these aesthetic foreshadows of disaster by toning down his rhetoric and reversing provocative policies unnecessarily stirring resentment. The self-proclaimed Christian should also remember what Jesus warned against in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword." Otherwise, god forbid, there may be no Hollywood happy ending for Bush.
L.A.-based freelance writer Ed Rampell wrote "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States". Rampell was named after Edward R. Murrow and appears in the 2005 Australian documentary "Hula Girls, Imagining Paradise." Rampell co-authored the movie history books "Made In Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas" and "Pearl Harbor in the Movies."