Dir. Jamie Roberts
In 2017, the documentary LA 92 was released for the 25th anniversary of the riots resulting from the verdict in the case which found the four officers who beat Rodney King not guilty. The film nods at some of the causes of the riots which created a fever pitch in Los Angeles even before Stacey Koon and company lost their minds. It goes back to the Watts riots of ’65 and includes the murder of Latasha Harlins; Joyce Karlin’s verdict had just been upheld by an appeals court a week before the not guilty verdict in the Koon case. It’s not like watching Geraldo back in the really gonzo days, but by the time we get to the destruction and all the property damage and the looting and the physical violence, you can tell that this is what captivated the filmmakers. The reasons why are not at the top of mind. The stuff showing Los Angeles losing its collective mind is what appealed to them, and it makes up the bulk of the documentary, and by the end all you can do is wonder why Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin thought the most meaningful thing they could do with all this footage and all this history was to recreate the feeling of watching the evening news in April 1992.
Four years later, with only a single year’s worth of hindsight rather than a quarter-century’s, Jamie Roberts has done something similar with Four Hours at the Capitol. With better and more footage than what we got on CNN or Twitter on the afternoon of January 6th, and more of a sense of who the key players were, Roberts has created a reasonably immersive document of what it must have been like to be at the various places under siege. But it’s clear for Roberts that all this is, really, is a very neat human interest story. Like Lindsay and Martin before him, Roberts is seduced by individual recollections and moved by stories of lost lives and human drama. The frightening physical trial of Mike Fanone, a Metro police officer who was dragged out of the tunnel and suffered a mild heart attack, is the emotional centerpiece of the film, the part of the picture with the most bodies swelling. He is the most sympathetic victim of anyone, emphasized by Roberts’ choice to begin the film in his SUV, sitting in the back seat and filming his eyes in the rearview mirror. The Fanone section is preceded by the shooting of Ashli Babbitt, who is a martyr of sorts for the MAGA folks who constitute a swath of Roberts’ interviewees; her death is lingered on, although Fanone and his partner (and Fanone’s body camera) provide interviews which humanize Fanone’s plight in a way which makes us feel sympathy for them in a way it’s more difficult to feel for Babbitt.
The fear of Pelosi staffer Leah Han and the tears she chokes back during her interview, the nervousness of Capitol Police officer Keith Robishaw in the face of the Q Shaman, the wacked-out “activist filmmaker” Nick Alvear taking credit for cooling the rough vibes of putschists in the rotunda: all of these people and many more are great stories for Roberts, and none of them do anything more than provide anecdotal evidence. At the end of the documentary, Roberts gets out the stapler and includes some brief interviews with the widows of police officers who died on the scene or committed suicide afterwards. He knows that he has to talk about the dead—other documentarians talk about the dead in these kinds of stories, after all—and so after relying entirely on one cast of characters throughout the doc, he moves to an epilogue with brand new ones. The search for weepy talking heads dominates in this film, making it dizzy with personal feeling and even dizzier in terms of creating any structure which is not strictly chronological.
As much as Roberts is focused on these interviews with people, it’s shocking how little new information he actually manages to squeeze out of them. The politicians who were trapped inside the Capitol and rushed into hiding were some combination of fearful and angry. The people who stormed the Capitol remain amped up on the rush of patriotic fervor that comes from cosplaying 1776 a little too nearly. The police officers all talk about combat noises and the physical exhaustion of fighting off these hordes of protestors for so long. It’s not that this isn’t worthwhile information, but aside from it having been reprinted in so many other places, it’s completely predictable. The politicians were scared that the angry mob might come in? The angry mob was self-righteous and deluded enough to think they were all doing the right thing? The police were in a fight? You could ask someone with only the barest foreknowledge of the coup to guess at what everyone was feeling, and that person would absolutely be able to predict those reactions on the parts of the three groups.
The closer Four Hours at the Capitol gets to the story, the farther away it is from what’s actually most meaningful about January 6th. This is a problem of Roberts’ own making in choosing to make the film a talking heads documentary, a decision which expresses a pitiable dearth of creativity on his part but which also, amusingly, chips away at the power of his documentary to actually immerse us in the scenes he is so excited to display. The politicians he interviews are, for the most part, pretty dry political types. Jason Crow, the Colorado Democrat who gained some fame for translating his military service to the galleries of the House chamber, is interviewed. So too are a host of misty-eyed Democrats, a couple of Republicans (recalcitrant Georgian Buddy Carter and fatigued Illinoisan Adam Kinzinger) and feisty vet Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona. Gallego is the only elected official who has anything to say about the experience of being in the Capitol which goes beyond his own personal recollections. He remembers seeing buses coming, presumably to get the politicians out of the Capitol, and he recounts for the documentary his explicit unwillingness to get on any bus because of what it would have meant to lose the seat of government. That’s an interesting thought. With the exception of California Democrat Eric Swalwell and one of the Capitol Police officers (who does not relish the thought of going down in history as the commander who lost the Capitol), Gallego is alone in considering the possible futures from January 6th. He’s thinking about the way the optics of losing the Capitol building might have translated to allow Donald Trump to turn the events of that day from merely calamitous to the start of martial law. Even the Proud Boys and Cowboys for Trump representatives on screen never quite get as far as all that.
I found myself wondering who, exactly, this documentary was for. It’s not for the right-wing maniacs, no matter how many of them Roberts interviews to get his on-the-scene kicks. (If Roberts had been making a document about the Beer Hall Putsch, he would have found a way to interview Emil Maurice.) It’s not for people who don’t know anything about it, because I can’t imagine this would appeal to someone who wasn’t already at least somewhat knowledgeable about the facts of January 6th. I hope to heaven that Roberts is not making a document he thinks will be useful for future historians or something like that. And this is not a documentary which has been made for an audience of people who are genuinely concerned about what this defeat for the MAGA crowd might ultimately transform itself into. Roberts’ documentary carries the Febrezed scent of the early months of the Biden administration on it, this rosy outlook about a nightmarish four years that have been dissipated with sunlight and wiped away like eye boogers. As far as this documentary knows, those four hours at the Capitol are just that, unless you’re a dead cop or his widow. It cannot imagine that there might be something fetid under that small of Febreze yet, and it is made for people who want to relive a traumatic moment and then put it down again. Four Hours at the Capitol is a schlocky horror movie. Journalism, let alone historiography, never crosses its mind.