(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber
Programme: Special Screenings
Two bearded men walk around the heart of Washington D.C.’s political infrastructure staking out their next operation. They go to the steps of the Capitol Building, remembering the events they witnessed on January 6, 2021. They recall how equipment from CNN and other outlets was smashed, just before a group of insurgents marched up the steps, assailing windows and police alike, and prevented for several hours the constitutionally mandated transfer of power from one president to another.
As the men take note of places where the utmost disruption would took place, and stake out positions under the civilian flight path for Ronald Reagan Airport with GPS devices, they talk of what’s next to come. For, if January 6was precis, then next time they’ll be able to bring in a significant percentage of both the military and police command, many of whom have been radicalized by years-long attempts to undercut the foundations of American society. If last time was a mere insurrection, the next time will be an outright coup. The future of the country, if not the security of the entire world, could be at stake.
To trivialize such events as hyperbolic speculation, or perhaps the stuff of playful activity, would be to deny the very real possibilities of such an event occurring. In War Game, we witness a group of former and current politicians, military leaders, and the like gathering to explore what would happen if 2025 provides an escalation for what transpired when Trump supporters, cajoled by leaders and right-wing groups, sought to subvert the will of the people and cling to power. Acclaimed documentarians Tony Gerber (producer of Jane) and Jesse Moss (who was at Sundance with another remarkable film, Girls State) capture this six-hour simulation. Locked off in a darkened room, a group of insiders and experts provide the best advice they can with an elected president charged with maintaining order while weighing whether to federalize the National Guard, a so-called ”nuclear option” that could easily descend into further chaos and distrust.
On its surface, there should be something almost hopeful that these Washington insiders have gathered in a bipartisan way to take such possibilities seriously. Many of them are familiar faces – former General Wesley Clark, for example, has long been a face familiar within the pundit class, and there are senators, governors, deputy directors, and others with experience within the situation room, facing exactly these kinds of circumstances in real time.
Of course, the real events don’t have anything quite as overt as a giant red countdown clock, but at the same time, the argument could be made that this is a generous amount of time to rescue the democratic institutions of a troubled nation. Using polished news reports, virtual social media posts via a private Slack channel, and closed circuit camera setups to simulate presidential pronouncements, the trappings of the event feel authentic.
We witness how the President needs to weigh the options in real time, doing more listening than acting and take in the various factors from his advisors and then coming up with a plan for action, and, perhaps, a plan for avoiding overreaction. At times, War Game ramps up to reality TV-like fervour, the rapid editing mirroring the adrenaline-fuelled situation as a cascade of information must be distilled, processed, and responded to as more complications arise.
Those aforementioned bearded men are part of a group comprised of former military members, many of them who were drawn to the darker ideas that played out in 2021. Their group has helped to craft this simulation in a way that feels entirely plausible, and it’s through their actions that the true, dreadful nature of this type of event becomes clear. Fundamentally, the gaming out of their use of violence, coercion, and onslaught of social media posts containing a mixture of half-truths and downright fabrications, serves as both the most sophisticated and the most chilling aspect of what we witness.
If the events of January 6 have proven anything, it’s that there’s a rot at the heart of the American experiment, one that over the centuries has resulted in waves of near-catastrophic altercation. The country was founded by people who disputed the rule from afar, a sentiment now realized by many people who challenge the expert advice of generals, politicians, and medical professionals, coddled by conspiracies rather than sated by facts. If anything, the events we see in War Game illustrate the paucity of imagination for just how bad things truly could get. Even these political professionals participating in the simulation may simply not be prepared to come to terms with the level of catastrophe that could arise…
War Game provides a fascinating, sobering look at near-future events, and while one should be comforted that adults in the room can be brought together to help make lasting decisions, the flipside is that one feels that this game didn’t get rough enough to be real. In these early weeks of another election year where those convicted of crimes committed during January 6are being referred to as “hostages,” it’s hard to find succor in this simulated version of events.
But maybe there remains a spark of optimism that when the time comes for action, and when the gates of democracy in the U.S. are once again being stormed, there are those who have at least asked the hard questions in advance are being put in charge of a response. One hopes that they will act in ways as nuanced as those foreshadowed in the simulation of what could happen within this calendar year.