JWR Articles: Television - Murder at the Fair: The Assassination of President McKinley (Director: Joe Berlinger) - April 11, 2006
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Murder at the Fair: The Assassination of President McKinley

4 4
46 min.

Part of 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America
Let there be light

On September 6, 1901 the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo became the perfect set for staging the third assassination of a U.S. President. The larger-than-life fair replete with temples, towers and an orgy of electric lights had been opened by Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt months earlier (President McKinley forgoing the honour due to an untimely infection in his wife, Ida’s finger). The midway was chock-a-block full of ghettoized displays of Mexican, Black and Indian savages. Still, the “capable” whites were likely just as fooled by the fakery, games of chance and freaks-of-nature sideshows that balanced the palatial splendour with “entertainment for all.”

Told against this spectacular backdrop, director Joe Berlinger has done an admirable job of recreating the third murder of a U.S. commander-in-chief—this time at the hands of Polish-American Leon Czolgosz. The backgrounds of both the hunted and hunter unfold in an intriguing combination of archival footage, detail-rich re-enactments and a variety of present-day authors and historians familiar with the attitudes, events and spirit of the early twentieth century. Terry Kinney’s quietly stated narration sets just the right tone. The music tracks from Wendy Blackstone—fast moving and peppy in the introduction, discreetly reinforcing with the “Nearer my God to Thee” piano—are at their best in the closing frames where she convincingly underscores the feeling of hope even as the newly-sworn-in President acknowledges that “real and grave evils” exist.

The only wrong note is sounded by the commentator who describes the man next in line to Czolgosz (whose Iver Johnson thirty-two calibre revolver is about to burn a hole through its linen handkerchief camouflage and into the fatty abdomen of the unsuspecting McKinley) as having a “dark complexion,” when the screen reveals a handsome black man. Er, haven’t we relegated “careful” adjectives to the white-bread dumpster decades ago?

The whole notion of power comes through in many ways: an overabundance at the exposition; “fuel” for the electric ambulance, which dashes the bleeding president to the as yet unwired hospital; the widening gap between rich and poor that drives men and women to fear and despair respectively; the two rounds of raw voltage required to satisfactorily end Czolgosz’s life; finally, thanks to the deadly combination of a bit of lead and a disenfranchised citizen, the shift of presidential power from a corporate-controlled Republican to an intellectual media hound.

That couldn’t happen again! JWR

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Director - Joe Berlinger
Directors of Photography - Michael Neumann, Bob Richman
Editor - Kristine Smith
Narrator - Terry Kinney
Historical figure - William McKinley
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