Fair warning: This column contains details that may be disturbing to some.
It’s not often that a content warning is needed here, but on this occasion, it’s merited. Four Hours at the Capitol (Wednesday, HBO 9 p.m. and streaming on Crave) is disturbing and graphic. It is a meticulous, on-the-ground account, gleaned from hundreds of hours of footage, and countless sources, of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building.
This is not a compilation of familiar news footage from that day, nor is it just footage from security cameras inside the building. Neither is it a miscellany of images of yahoo-behaviour by a handful of colourful crackpots. It’s a painstakingly compiled account, including footage from the rioters’ cameras and interviews with police, politicians and members of the right-wing groups Proud Boys and Cowboys for Trump, who were present and involved.
As it moves steadily through the minutes of the hours, the viewer is transfixed by the you-are-there footage and at a certain point you are just stunned by what you see and hear. A Capitol Police officer says, “A guy came up, got his thumb in my right eye and tried to gouge it out.” That was about 2:30 p.m. on the day and, as it was happening, the braying mob nearest to the scene was chanting, “Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!”
As we see, the mob was moving toward the Capitol building before Trump had even finished speaking at his rally that day. Many believed what Trump had just been saying: “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved,” and, “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country any more.” They were intent on overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The Capitol Police were unprepared for the sheer numbers and fury of the mob. Police barrier after barrier fell, the rioters were emboldened and, as we witness with blood-chilling detail, some ringleaders were bent on making the mayhem deadly. As rioters fought hand-to-hand with police, one officer was pulled to the ground. “I got one,” a man shouts in triumph over and over in the film. “Get his gun, shoot him with his gun,” another man roars.
It is interesting now to stand back from this extraordinary account and remember how reaction unfolded after the riot. First there was shock, then condemnation. Then uncertainty about how to frame what happened. Some news outlets became reluctant to suggest the riot was by Trump supporters. (”Trump 2020″ flags outnumber any other flags in the documentary.)
In the way that images can beggar language and truth, there emerged a convenient picture of kooks engaging in that yahoo-behaviour, seen on repeat in TV news reports and late-night TV mockery. It’s an instance of denial in a polarized political landscape and, even as I write this review, Donald Trump is doing what he always does first – sue, and he’s suing to block the release of documents related to the Capitol attack.
Filmmakers Dan Reed and Jamie Roberts don’t hesitate to give a platform to the alt-right activists and agitators who were present at Jan. 6. One Proud Boys member grins, describing the scene as “a great day for America!” A fanatical Trump supporter says Trump was “anointed by God” and yet another refers to Trump as his “saviour.” The Proud Boys summary is articulated by one guy as “a lot of fighting between patriotic people and the Capitol Police.”
The filmmakers will be criticized by some for giving oxygen to such views but the film’s point is clear – the strange calm of the advocates for violence is presented alongside footage of the barbaric fighting, as a subversion of their serenity.
It is hard to catalogue, let alone absorb, the most graphic violence, but there’s a point where talk overlaps disturbingly with the fevered violence. Several politicians who were present that day are interviewed. One is Ruben Gallego, a Democrat and congressman from Arizona. A Harvard graduate, he joined the Marines and served in Iraq. He was both furious and afraid as the mob was feet away, and on the point of reaching him and his colleagues. He describes his reaction in those moments: “My plan was to stab somebody in the eye or in the throat and take away their weapon.”
There is one moment of insane irony near the end. The leader of Cowboys for Trump was found, charged and arrested for his actions at the Capitol. He’s mad as hell because, while being held in jail, he wasn’t allowed to shower. “Inhumane,” he says in indignant disgust. Apart from that surreal moment, the film is so disturbing that all warnings should be heeded.
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