Imperium was introduced to the public by means of a limited theatrical release and via video on demand. As such, few have heard of it. I only learned of its existence when a trailer played before another movie I rented. I added it into my Netflix DVD queue and mostly forgot about it. When it showed up, I put off watching it for over a week until a quiet Friday night came along and it appeared to be the best of limited options. Over the course of its 109 minute run time, it became one of the best movies I’ve seen in a few years.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, a skinny and young FBI agent working to foil terrorist plots. He’s recruited by an older agent named Angela Zamparo after she witnesses his ability to connect on a personal level with a suspect. Using her contacts, he’ll infiltrate a group of white supremacists who she believes have stolen ceasium-137, a radiological agent that she believes will be turned into a dirty bomb and used against innocent people. Though he’s hesitant, he takes the job, and proceeds to gain the trust of the skinheads and their associates.
The movie is fascinating, creating numerous moments of tension and suspense without ever turning Radcliffe’s character into a super soldier. There are no massive gunfights or shootouts. For much of the film, he’s extremely vulnerable to violent and well-armed white supremacists. The characters are all very believable, which makes some of the most fanatical white supremacists utterly terrifying in their extremism.
Imperium also creates an atmosphere that is unsettling. The movie opens with the quote “Words build bridges into unexplored regions,” and leaves it on the screen for a moment before attributing it to Adolf Hitler. Unfamiliar with the quote, I was immediately uncomfortable with how much I liked it until I saw who spoke the words. Symbols, slogans, and phrases of the white power movement abound. There are hooded klansmen, burning crosses, swastikas, and other symbols of white racial extremism. Radcliffe crams heavily in the beginning on racist literature and propaganda (including a conspiracy theorist and radio host who is much like the idiotic Alex Jones of real life), and leverages it in uncomfortable but totally believable exchanges with his new “Aryan warrior” friends.
The film has incredible merits on its own. Radcliffe is perfect in his role to the point where Harry Potter is virtually unrecognizable. The supporting cast rises to the occasion to match the performance. The script is strong, and the setting is well outside of the comfort zone of most reasonable people. Yet there’s no denying that the timing of the movie lends it an extra something that makes it disturbingly relevant.
One day after watching the movie, protestors and counter-protestors clashed in Berkeley, California. The media would describe the belligerents as “Trump supporters” and “anti-Trump protestors.” The truth was far less simple and made for less sexy headlines, as detailed in this piece from Esquire. There’s a scene in Imperium that virtually matched what happened in Berkeley, with neo-Nazis and white supremacists clashing violently with anti-fascists.
White nationalism has certainly become emboldened in the months since Trump won his 2016 electoral victory. Richard Spencer has become a well-known figure in America, particularly after he rented an event space and held a rally near the White House that was complete with Nazi salutes and chants of “Hail victory!” White gangs such as the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers have leveraged the anxiety of some law enforcement members and disenfranchised veterans to swell their extremist ranks.
Political leadership in the White House and Congress also reflects this frightening trend. Trump’s rhetoric has remained ignorant on issues of race at the very least. His choice of Jeff Sessions, who has in the past implied black people should watch how they talk to “white folks” and decried the NAACP as un-American, is his hand-picked Attorney General. Steve Bannon remains a part of the administration as well, albeit in a diminished role. As the editor for the sensationalist blog Breitbart, he chose to focus on anti-Islam, anti-immigration, and “black crime” stories. The spate of vandalism and threats against Jewish Community Centers come to mind, too.
As such, Imperium hits really hard. The people Radcliffe must deceive in his search for a lead on the stolen radioactive substance are the type of people marching with increased visibility in cities where they previously lacked the audacity to promote their extremist views. As the movie illustrates, many of them are little more than thugs. Yet, just as with the jihadists found here and abroad, there are also members of the white supremacist population that seek to kill large numbers of innocent people in the hopes it will ignite a race war.
Yesterday marked 22 years since Timothy McVeigh drove a truck full of his own homemade bombs into a federal building, killing 168 (including 19 kids). McVeigh was a scrawny, disillusioned loser who turned to far-right racist ideology, and it’s what propelled him to murder so many innocent people. Those same forces, as depicted in Imperium, are back on the rise. People need to know what they’re dealing with, and this movie is a frightening but believable depiction of the threat this country faces. I loved the movie for a number of reasons, but I wish one of them wasn’t just how relevant Imperium is in America right now.