When Dan Reed and Jamie Roberts began approaching networks about a film focused on the storming of the US Capitol – an attack on American democracy on the scale of 9/11, and all the more shattering for having come from within – they were met with a lack of enthusiasm.
“The response was, ‘Why do we need a documentary? Everyone knows what happened’,” says Reed, whose previous hits include Leaving Neverland. It is true the January insurrection – in which thousands of Trump supporters rampaged in protest over the “stolen” election, leaving five dead and 140 police officers injured – had been documented in real time. Authorities reviewed 15,000 hours of footage, making it the largest digital crime scene in history.
Nine months later, the headlines are still mounting, with more than 670 people charged. But in the mass of information on the attack it was possible to lose sight of its impact, says Reed.
“You could be forgiven for thinking: ‘What more is there to say about this?’ But the act of putting many sources together, combining them in a chronological narrative … it has meaning,” Reed says over Zoom from his London home. “You reveal the hidden shape.”
The result is Four Hours at the Capitol: a meticulous, chronological account of how 6 January unfolded, executive produced by Reed and directed by Roberts. If the violence that day seemed sudden and explosive even to those of us following it from afar, the film shows the agonising push-and-pull between protesters and police on the threshold, the tension building and finally boiling over.
The escalation from mindless hooliganism to hand-to-hand combat, as people just doing their jobs begin to fear for their lives, is hard to watch – especially knowing the consequences will be fatal. Reed says one executive passed on the idea saying it felt too “ripped straight from the headlines”. Four Hours Aat the Capitol certainly makes the headlines feel chillingly real. “It sort of becomes an action movie at one point: you’re totally immersed,” says Reed. “It is horrific, it is shocking to witness to what point America is divided.”
At the time of the attack, he and Roberts had been working on a film about the Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest of the summer of 2020, centring on the alleged fatal shooting of two people by 17-year-old pro-police vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Through that project, they connected with a group of young videographers working for right-wing news sites, who call themselves the Riot Squad.
“Their commitment to videoing everything continuously stood out from the way events had previously been recorded,” says Reed. “You and I might think that the use of their video material has a strong political bias – but they’d probably say the same thing about us.”
When the Capitol was attacked, Reed and Roberts realised that the Riot Squad was filming in the thick of the action. “We started downloading all the footage we could find,” Reed says.
The abundance of material of nearly every minute allowed them to stitch together the sequence of events, while witnesses tell the story. There’s the Capitol police caught on the back foot, the Washington DC police brought in to do battle, the politicians and staff readying themselves for fight or flight and the reporters struggling to keep pace. “It’s always players, not pundits,” says Reed.
The most striking testimony is from the protestors themselves: a broad church ranging from rubberneckers to those clearly intent on doing harm. Many belong to the Proud Boys, the far-right group (now synonymous with alt-right extremism) which led the attack on the Capitol. Some subscribe to conspiracies associated with QAnon.
It is unsettling to hear them describe that day in their own words, and to see the pleasure some evidently derive from them. Were the film-makers concerned about airing dangerous views? “We’re obviously very aware of being seen as giving those people the oxygen of publicity,” says Reed, before pausing. “However, you’re never going to understand why 6 January took place if you block your ears every time someone you don’t like the political complexion of opens their mouth … We’re not platforming these people – but you do need to walk in their shoes.”
Often the footage speaks for itself, such as when Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin describes “thousands of peaceful patriots standing around” while the viewer is shown a bloody, baying mob – and Griffin stirring them up further. “It was very violent: this was an out-and-out physical attack on the Capitol and the people defending it,” says Reed. “We don’t hold back on that, and that’s got to tell you a lot … The fact that members of the Proud Boys are allowed to speak is entirely as it should be, because that’s how we’re going to understand.”
In fact, many of the protestors had to be persuaded to participate with “the enemy”, says Reed, and though every Republican lawmaker was invited to interview, “only a handful” agreed. Democrats were more forthcoming, but also had to be managed. “The interpretation of what happened has been massively politicised,” says Reed. Some on the right have claimed the violence was limited to a few rogues among the Trump supporters’ peaceful protest, as some on the left allege that it was a premeditated coup.
“It was neither of those things,” says Reed. “It was a disruptive action, and though it was to some extent organised, I don’t think many people who entered the building that day really had a plan.”
Certainly the film makes plain the “massive failure” on the part of the Capitol police to anticipate the Trump rally could turn violent. The mob overcomes the meagre barricade on the steps with ease. “I would say that wasn’t even enough security on a normal day,” says Reed, “never mind the day the election was being certified.”
Later, as rioters roam inside the building, smoking joints under the rotunda and sprawling across the Speaker’s podium (“I just wanna let you guys know this is, like, the most sacredest place,” says a harried officer), police hold back some 7,000 or 8,000 more at the West Terrace tunnel.
America teetered on the brink of martial law, Reed says. When an officer is dragged into the mob, “you can see that there are different impulses within the crowd: one is to smash his face in and kill him – and the other is to save him.”
Had the House of Commons been in comparable jeopardy, he says, “ there would have been massive bloodshed – with that level of threat, I think police would have definitely opened fire. It’s just astonishing that the Capitol police didn’t.”
Instead, as an officer says in the film– and as the footage shows to be miraculous – huge loss of life was averted on both sides. The squall passes when, after four hours, Trump finally tells his adoring, warring supporters to go home.
Acquitted by the Senate of inciting the riot, Trump is still actively fighting the House’s select committee scrutinising his part in it. “Of course he bears huge moral responsibility,” says Reed. “I think it’s pretty hard to escape that conclusion if you watch the film. There’s not going to be a proper Congressional inquiry, or a bipartisan investigation – in many ways, our documentary will be the enduring account of what happened that day.”
Four Hours at the Capitol also makes clear the human toll through the emotional testimonies of those who feared they would be killed, and those who nearly were. Four police officers also killed themselves in the wake of the attack, says Reed. “This wasn’t an event that went by without a lot of human suffering.”
But the overwhelming impression is of anger, on all sides – from those who stormed the Capitol, and those who sought to protect it. It is testament to the deep rift from which the violence erupted: “part of the long tail of 9/11”, says Reed, which persists into the Biden presidency.
“There’s a certain amount of despair in America that you can see in the high suicide rate among the post-industrial white working class, in the rates of opiate addiction and family breakdowns. There’s a large constituency of people who feel that they are not at the centre of the American story any more. Will President Biden, with his big infrastructure plan, start to heal that? Maybe. But I think the forces which propelled the rioters into the Capitol are still very live.”
Indeed, membership to right-wing militia groups was recently found to have surged since 6 January. That unprecedented violence, Reed points out, was spearheaded by a few dozen determined individuals – “and then that opened the way to events that changed the world”.
But the problem with documenting history as it unfolds is that it can be hard to see where it might lead. The Capitol attack “does hold a serious warning for the future,” says Reed. “But I don’t think any of us really understand what it means yet.”
Four Hours at the Capitol is on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC Two.
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