Michael: We don’t want others. We want one name, and we want it fast, because it gives us our security back. We can say, “Here was the one man unlike the rest of us. We’ve named him, and he’s no more. And his reasons, they’re gone, too.”
The years before us are going to be full, again, with the much-maligned “diner story,” those tedious features from coastal daily papers that task a reporter with going out into the great hinterlands of the United States and interviewing the regular folks who live there about why they keep voting for a political party whose plain and inarguable platform (to the extent it even has one anymore) is that the government should not govern, and that only white people are really American.
The reason these articles keep getting written is because most reporters at big traditional media are white people, and increasingly they are at a loss as to why their fellow white people are so ill-informed, so extremist, so impenetrable to reason. They go out in search of some answer to this, unwilling to see the obvious, which is that this stuff has been preached to them within a closed ecosystem of schools, media and religious organizations that reinforce complete nuttery. That would require interrogating what it is about our national character that has allowed this circus to thrive.
Arlington Road is a late ’90s thriller about mid-’90s conspiracies, the sort of competently written, staged and acted mid-list movie that seems like it is going to wrap up nicely, with easy answers and a shadowy cabal of bad guys exposed and stopped. Then (spoiler alert) that does not happen, because its hero fundamentally misjudges what is going on.
Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a professor who lectures on the topic of domestic terrorism at a beltway college, a man whose wife, we learn, was an FBI agent who died in a field during a Waco-style misunderstanding that resulted in a family of unhinged loners dying and taking a bunch of federal agents with them. He reveals this to us in fits and starts as the film follows his budding friendship with Oliver (Tim Robbins), who’s living right across the street from Faraday but who he only meets after rushing Oliver’s son to the hospital. The movie opens as Faraday discovers the teen boy staggering down the street, bloodied from an apparent accident involving fireworks.
Guilty over not knowing their family better, Faraday starts encouraging friendships between his son (Spencer Treat Clark) and Oliver’s kid, and between Oliver’s wife (Joan Cusack) and his own girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis). It’s only after a few sleepovers and late nights chatting politics around the dinner table that Faraday starts noticing glaring inconsistencies in Oliver’s claims about his work—and a simmering undercurrent of anti-government sentiment that seems matched by his son’s insistence that his pillow fort is a “compound.”
Digging further into his neighbor’s past reveals what we suspect: that Oliver is not who he says he is, that he’s stolen someone’s identity, that the architectural plans in his house aren’t for an addition on the local mall but are an office building, and that when he was 16 he was collared for trying to set off a bomb because the government stole his father’s farmland. (In one of the most prescient details, the culprit is specifically the Bureau of Land Management, the very same group with which Ammon Bundy was beefing when, in 2016, he and several other gun-toting people seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and for the next 40 days engaged in the most pathetic standoff with federal agents in memory.)
By the time any of this starts setting off Faraday’s alarm bells, his son is already eating dinner at Oliver’s house and going off on camping trips with a knockoff Boy Scouts group that is actually a recruitment arm for Oliver’s conspiracy—making them, I guess, slightly creepier than the actual Boy Scouts. His girlfriend only comes around to his panic at the situation when it’s too late, and the film ends as Faraday races against time to stop Oliver and his conspirators from bombing the J. Edgar Hoover Building.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995—the one that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building—I was 11 years old and it was a tragedy that I didn’t really fully grasp what had happened. I remember well the fixation on Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, though, the co-conspirators at the heart of it. Months, it seemed, of breathless coverage on the guys. And in reflecting on that whirling zeitgeist of the time, Arlington Road (which uses a made-up bombing as a stand-in) is absolutely right about one thing: As a nation, we do demand scapegoats and the symbolic tarring and feathering of figureheads, irrespective of any of the cultural forces that enabled them. Yet the movie has precious little to say about who is driving those cultural forces when the answer is (and was then) violent white supremacist men.
The state reprimanded McVeigh for participating in a KKK rally, but it also poured violence into his brains while he was in the Army, showering him with medals for his service in the Gulf War before later executing him in 2001 for his crimes. There are now millions of Americans who, if you sat them down and asked them point-blank questions about it, probably agree with a lot of the things McVeigh and Nichols believed, as I’m sure they do with Ammon Bundy’s various grievances.
Arlington Road is a thriller that very much sets you up to believe it is the sort of movie in which a bad guy gets punched. That happens—Bridges and Robbins scrap for a bit right at the climax—but it pulls the rug out from under you in the last scene, in which Bridges discovers, right before he gets blown sky high, that he is a patsy, and that the whole movie has been setting him up to be the delivery vehicle for the bomb. It becomes easy, as the news reports roll in, to see how the narrative could be spun that way. You feel as betrayed, watching it, as he does when it all hits him.
It’s also fundamentally silly, because that is not at all what terrorism is in America, even if the movie comes so painfully close to pointing at the real perpetrators by doing things like suggesting maybe youth groups that drill you and march you around and make you take oaths might be up to something.
Domestic terrorism is not committed by patsies who were set up. It is not, meaningfully, the work of shadowy organizations or clandestine cabals. Americans are increasingly driven to violence against their fellow Americans (and were in 1999 and even in 1995) by one greatly over-represented half of the political spectrum in the country, the one willing to curry favor among militias. This half has been screaming at me my whole life that school shootings, medical bankruptcy, endless foreign wars, and preventable plague deaths are all acceptable costs of freedom, but that allowing a Black woman in Detroit to vote is suspect.
I have no idea what to do about any of that, but Arlington Road was right at least that punching someone probably isn’t going to work.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.