HOLLYWOOD—“Imperium” has a lot to say. Most people will be interested in it because it represents part of the maturation of Daniel Radcliffe’s career, but beyond even his great performance the movie is fantastic. It’s a needed exploration of modern domestic terror, fascism, and radical movements.
The plot is a classic, undercover crime drama. Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), a young FBI agent, infiltrates the world of radical, racist groups in order to stop a potential major terror plot. As his investigation progresses, he bears witness to a disturbing world as he fights to keep his cover, solve the case, and stay alive.
We have to raise our glasses to Radcliffe. If there was any doubt he could move beyond just being Harry Potter, it’s been put to rest. He pulls off the American accent beautifully. There was perhaps one moment where he slipped a bit, but overall he did it close to perfection. His character Nate is not who you would typically think of as a tough, undercover FBI agent. He’s bookish, highly educated, skinny, and in all honesty we get the impression he’s something of a desk agent. He’s out of his element doing dangerous undercover work. He’s brave and good with people, but his fear sometimes shows. Radcliffe is able to keep up with the scripts high demands for such a well-balanced character. He’s great in both the emotional and composed scenes.
The supporting cast does a great job. We see a collection of different characters all superbly performed. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts is terrific as the contemptible and unprincipled radio host Dallas Wolf. Toni Collette gives a great performance as Nate’s stressed out but determined handler Angela Zamparo. Sam Trammell is frighteningly believable as the everyman, who blends in to suburbia radical racist Gerry Conway.
Director/screenwriter Daniel Ragussis paces the story well. It really is an exciting movie that doesn’t slow. We are treated to some seriously intense scenes. A lot of them revolve around the constant fear of discovery that Nate lives under. It’s interesting that Nate becomes close to some of the people he’s investigating. In this way it is not unlike “The Infiltrator.” While I thought that film was decent, “Imperium” far surpasses it. We feel the connection between the characters a lot more in this film, especially between Nate, Angela, and Gerry. It’s ratchets up the tension far better at the key moments. There are so many great scenes in this regard. The images of racist children, and the insanity that comes with radicalization are terrifying. When those images are combined with the acid filled racist rhetoric we constantly hear, it becomes truly disturbing.
The film brings up an important and often overlooked fact. When we think of terror in the United States we tend to think of attacks from radical Islamic groups. The film doesn’t let us forget this threat as early scenes depict it, but in often disturbing, urgent terms it shows us the very real threat from radical racist groups. This is not the mere fantasy of filmmakers. New America, a think tank that is reportedly non-partisan, states that since 9/11 “Jihadist” terrorism has killed 94 people whereas “right wing” terrorism has killed 48.
CNN reported in 2015 that the Department of Homeland Security circulated an intelligence report showing great concern amongst law enforcement professionals over the growing threat posed by right-wing terrorism. Right wing and racist terror is not unknown to us. We recall the names of the incidents as the movie names many of them. The 2012 Sikh Temple Shooting, the Charleston Church Shooting, the Overland Park Jewish Community Center Shooting, the 2009 shooting at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Oklahoma City Bombing. We are often so inundated by images of Islamic terrorism that it’s easy to forget that we have enemies close to home. Sometimes we have to look inward as well as outward to notice the dangers we face.
This movie is one of the most poignant demonstrations of the power of words and art in recent years. The film opens in an emotional, shocking, downright disturbing way. We are given the quote “Words build bridges into unexplored regions,” which comes from none other than Adolf Hitler. We are treated to these somewhat bizarre montages of white supremacist groups and symbols. One that struck me was a depiction of the realist, triumphant, Eurocentric art that the NAZI’s were fond of. This montage and the quote are a powerful statement. We read time and again articles questioning arts social power, and calling us to Aestheticism.
I think this film forcefully rejects such a notion. We constantly hear classical music and literary references throughout. In the end, Nate quotes from “Manfred” by Lord Byron, “This should have been a noble creature. He hath all the energy which would have made for a goodly frame of glorious elements, had they been wisely mingled.” I don’t think this means that art is somehow evil or given to easy appropriation by bad actors. Instead, I think it asks art to acknowledge its social purpose, and try to inculcate people with the wisdom that they need to avoid being seduced by dark forces. If we as a society fail to recognize arts power the bad guys will.
Fascism is not easy to understand. Why people would want to follow an ideology and leaders that set them so against their fellow human beings is something that many a wise psychologist, sociologist, philosopher, historian, and artist has yet to figure out. The film theorizes it is a sense of “victimhood.” This sets them down the path to hatred, or at the very least makes them prime targets for those who would set them on such a path. I’m not sure that this totally explains it, but the film makes a compelling argument. In one of the best, perhaps most overlooked thrillers of the year we are warned of a danger that is far more pervasive than we’d like to believe,
It is not in the past, it has always been right there with us, and it is starting to emerge from the shadows.