DVD Review: The Prosecution of an American President (2013, dir. David Hagen & David J. Burke)

prosecutionofanamericanpresident_flatReview by Robert Ham

The coy title of this documentary is a strange one, especially because the source material – Vincent Bugliosi’s 2008 treatise The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder – pulls no such punches. Not that the film doesn’t present the case with the same amount of vitriol, emotion, and clarity that the famed prosecutor does. I just wonder about the marketing logic behind such a decision. If you’re going to call the man out, call the man out.

For 100 minutes, Bugliosi and the directors of this documentary do just that. They put forth the simple case that our former president took us to war with Iraq under false pretenses (Sadaam Hussein’s alleged imminent threat to the American people), and is therefore responsible for the deaths of thousands of U.S. solders sent over to fight this ridiculous battle. And depending upon your political predilections, you’re either going to be ready to write letters to your state district attorney or send this DVD sailing into a nearby body of water.

I’m not here to debate the veracity of Bugliosi’s case. Nor do I question the logic behind him staking his credibility by presenting it first to the students and administrators at UCLA’s law school and then to a House Committee investigating presidential powers. Looking at this solely as a film, directors Hagen & Burke treat this subject matter with the unceremonious touch of a basic cable TV special. Bugliosi’s grand statement about the Founding Fathers is followed by pounding, dramatic music and shots of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and oil paintings of our earliest leaders. There’s also plenty of shots of the Statue of Liberty, the Vietnam Memorial, and waving American flags throughout lest anyone doubt that the filmmakers are trying to defend our precious freedoms.

There is also little room within for any opposing arguments. Only Alan Dershowitz is allowed to wonder aloud whether his old friend is really using his time wisely by pursuing this likely unwinnable case. Really, the only voices you hear outside of Bugliosi’s come from a couple of families still distraught over the deaths of their sons, as well as the residents of Brattleboro, Vermont who passed a resolution in 2008 to arrest Bush and Dick Cheney if they were to enter the city limits. It’s a token gesture, but a telling one all the same.

I also wish that the directors had dug a little deeper into the struggles Bugliosi had to get his book published and reviewed. According to one scene in the film, all the major newspapers and news networks pretty much ignored it upon publication, and no recording house in America would dare to help make the audiobook version. I would have been very interested to hear some spokespeople from those organizations defending their decision, and to hear the filmmakers discuss the trouble that they had trying to get this film seen (apparently it was originally earmarked for broadcast on HBO before being dropped at the last minute). That kind of material would’ve only served to strengthen the case that Bugliosi, Hagen, and Burke are making here.

[Available for purchase via First Run Features, and for rent/download via iTunes]

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