Much of the will-the-narc-get-caught stuff is awfully familiar – we just saw a lot of this a month ago, in The Infiltrator – and that’s without Ragussis playing out the same basic suspense scene (Nate looks like he’s caught / tries to think fast and talk his way out / gets off the hook at the last possible second) on at least three separate occasions. That said, Collette makes hay out of her mostly-ignored, mid-level chief, putting a career’s worth of frustration and second-guessing into every strained smile. And while Radcliffe’s American accent remains a tad flighty, he’s otherwise convincing as the young turk; you can always see him thinking, pushing past each conversation and confrontation, no matter how fraught.
The former boy wizard makes an effective avatar for our journey through the white nationalist underworld, and the first hints of the movie’s complexity come when his initial circle of contacts – your fairly typical jack-booted, suspender-wearing types – take him to a meeting at what looks like a cookout on Transparent. Kids play, there’s Brahms on the phonograph, and the host has veggie burgers on the grill. He’s a clean-cut white-collar type who doesn’t go to the rallies or get involved in “the politics.” But he’s got some books you can borrow. And that becomes the movie’s key question: Who’s more dangerous, the guys in the boots, or the guy with the books?
There are other variations in between; the militia man with the evangelical bent, for example, or that radio host who, it turns out, broadcasts from his mother’s house (“I’m moving studios right now,” he explains, barely bothering to believe it himself). None of them fit in the same, tidy box of “racist,” in either words or deeds; indeed, the ones who make the most noise seem least likely to take action. And vice versa.
What ultimately separates Imperium from its in-too-deep brethren (in its better passages, at least) is the specificity of Nate’s mission – of the kind of people he’s trying to get through to, and how he does it. Early on, there’s a clumsy little scene where he’s getting the business from field office colleagues who seem less like feds than frat boys, but it gets the point across; brainy, a loner, comparatively small, Nate’s clearly an outsider, and seems to have made peace with that, after more than a few years of it.
But one can just as easily also take years of feeling like an outcast and turn it outward, rather than inward. “[I]t occurred to me how easy it would be, in that life, to feel powerless,” George Saunders wrote in a recent, extraordinary New Yorker essay on the Trump campaign, “to feel that the local was lame, the abstract extraneous, to feel that the only valid words were those of materialism (‘get’ and ‘rise’)—words that are perfectly embodied by the candidate of the moment. Something is wrong, the common person feels, correctly: she works too hard and gets too little; a dulling disconnect exists between her actual day-to-day interests and (1) the way her leaders act and speak, and (2) the way our mass media mistell or fail entirely to tell her story. What does she want? Someone to notice her over here, having her troubles.”
Late in Imperium, Collette puts it a bit more bluntly. “There really is only one essential ingredient to fascism,” she tells her charge, and the film cuts to another character finishing the thought: “It’s victimhood.” The heat of this particular moment probably lends the picture more gravitas than it earns, but so be it; it feels urgent, pressingly so, even as it can offer up no easy answers, because there are none. “Words build bridges into unexplored regions,” notes the opening epigraph, which seems pretty wise, until they reveal its author: Adolf Hitler. And here we are.
Imperium is out Friday in limited release and on demand.