‘Imperium’ and the Deceptive Simplicity of Modern Hate Movements

An otherwise middling undercover movie is surprisingly nuanced on the variations of racism, circa 2016.

I’ve replied to Donald Trump’s tweets. We’re all friends here, right? I’ve done it. I might’ve even done it more than once. There’s plenty of shame in that admission, because there’s always something a little sad about an @-reply to an entertainer (and make no mistake, that’s what he is), something that reeks with the desperation of shouting into a void for attention. But it’s not such a void with the Republican nominee. We know he reads at least some of his replies given that he frequently, and clumsily, retweets his supporters. Sometimes they’re white supremacists! That’s fun.

But if you spend enough time sifting through Trump’s replies, or the mentions of pretty much anyone of prominence voicing support for Black Lives Matter, or a Breitbart comment section, it’s easy to come away with a fairly homogenous portrait of racism, circa 2016 – a reasonably common set of buzzwords, approaches, targets, and “facts.” The primary accomplishment of Imperium, an otherwise middling undercover fed movie from writer/director Daniel Ragussis, is to remind us there are as many styles of racists as there are, well, colors in the rainbow. Stereotypes don’t just provide comfort and easy explanations to those on the wrong side of history.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Nate Foster, an idealistic FBI agent who mostly jockeys a desk, monitoring online communications between international terror groups. When a large shipment of explosive material goes missing, an agency higher-up (Toni Collette) sniffs something funny in the detailed rhetoric of hate radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts), and offers Nate the opportunity to go undercover as a skinhead, attempting to penetrate Wolf and the “white genocide”-spouting groups he moves between. (Hey, look at that, another accidental shout-out to Trump’s RTs.) So Nate shaves off his spectacularly terrible wig and goes to work.

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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.

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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.