A Common Sense Reminder Not To Indict Movies For Real World Acts of Violence

By  · Published on January 12th, 2011

While it’s not the media witch hunt of the mid-90s, it needs to be reiterated that movies and other pieces of art are not to blame for violent acts.

A national tragedy has both left us numb and stirred up the slumbering emotions of a fevered national discourse, and while it’s important to air those grievances (no matter what end of the spectrum we fall on), it’s imperative that pundits of all stripes keep a level head and avoid irresponsibly throwing art under the bus for the sobering acts of one individual.

Unfortunately, several media outlets have – in their hurry to toss more examples onto the argumentative fire – evoked the name of a four-year-old festival film from Britain (that few people saw) in order to help prove a trend in filmmaking of inciting violence against public officials. A trend, of course, that does not exist.

To callously toss Death of a President out into a sea of negative context and to suggest that public entities of varying types should have decried the film as hateful is to tacitly champion censorship of the worst kind. It’s to quietly claim that some subject matter is off limits, and that’s unacceptable.

John Nolte of Big Hollywood shoves the trailer and a blurb about the film from Roger Ebert’s site right at the top of his post entitled “Anti-Government, Left -Wing Hollywood Spent the Last Decade Putting ‘Crosshairs’ Over America,” and then adds this tail to the donkey of his recap of quotes from Michael Moore, Jane Fonda and others:

Never forget that this is the same industry that created the 2006 “mockumentary,” “Death of a President,” a film released throughout the world, into 143 domestic theatres, celebrated with an award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, and which depicted – onscreen, with the use of CGI – the assassination of President George W. Bush … all to the cheers of Rober Ebert’s website.

So, the example is a massive stretch. For one, it’s not the same industry that produced Michael Moore, John Legend and Death of a President (unless Nolte is indicting all filmmakers around the world). For two, if all Nolte can do is pull one film that only played 3% of US theaters from four years ago out of his hat to claim the film industry is guilty of spending the last decade stirring up violence, then I’d say the industry is not doing a very good job of stirring up violence.

It’s also unclear whether Nolte has seen the movie he’s castigating. It’s one thing to balk at a concept, but it’s another to cast stones without knowing the content.

I have to believe that he doesn’t seriously advocate the kind of censorship that he’s invoking here. It’s convenient to point a finger at movies, even when there don’t seem to be any movies around readily available to make your point for you. Should he hold those whom he quoted to the fire? Absolutely. He should press them for a burden of proof for their claims, but he should leave movies and a call for outrage at them out of it.

It’s also important to note that Gabriel Range, who directed the film, is not a talking head, a political analyst, or a celebrity attempting to shoehorn his personal opinion into the discussion, and Death of a President isn’t a podium at a rally or a show on a cable news channel. There’s a world of difference, and some perspective is absolutely needed because it’s showing up on roll calls of quotes from politicians (where it simply doesn’t belong).

While Nolte is a whisper in the wind that should be ignored, others like Bernard Goldberg and Rich Noyes (to a lesser degree) have also used IMDB to find Death of a President, and used it as a faulty litmus test for who felt the right amount of outrage at the right time.

We are so far beyond the days of Marshall McLuhan and the medium being the message. Yes, of course, public officials should be held to a different standard than pieces of art. For one, we don’t elect pieces of art to make our laws or be our most public citizens. The differences between a British filmmaker creating works of fiction and the United States politicians voted on by the public to responsibly (and hopefully maturely) represent its interests are so staggeringly many as to be self-evident.

As someone who lives in Tucson, the mood of the city has been a strange one since the shootings, and it’s difficult to find words that can sum up the feeling. “Hollow,” comes close.

What’s happened is unspeakable. It’s this sort of thing that strips us right down to our core. In a way, it’s understandable that some would grope in the darkness for an easy answer that makes sense of the senseless, that places a blame of equal weight to the severity of the vile act at hand. We don’t want to believe one person alone is capable of such wanton evil. In our own ways, we are all looking for that bigger picture that will explain it all.

Should individuals in public office be responsible for their own rhetoric? That’s a debate for another website to handle, but in the mean time, can we just leave movies (and books, and video games, and music, and theater) out of it?

Thanks. It’s appreciated.

On a side note, Death of a President was one of the first films I ever reviewed for FSR (when I incorrectly labeled it as coming from Canada). I didn’t much care for it. It still doesn’t deserve to be a scapegoat.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.