UK TV review: Four Hours at the Capitol
Helen Archer | On 23, Feb 2022
Just over a year ago, on the 6th of January 2021, the Western world seemed to grind to a halt as rolling news pumped out frightening footage live from Washington DC. As the US Congress was meeting to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, Donald Trump was giving a speech to an already-inflamed MAGA mass, who had congregated near the Capitol in protest at their leader’s imminent de-throning. What followed was four hours of chaos, as police and security forces fought back against a deadly onslaught of true believers, who seemed determined to bring violence to the proceedings.
This documentary condenses those frenzied four hours into 87 minutes, combining on-the-ground video with CCTV footage from inside the building and intercutting the action with interviews of some of the main players that day. Directed by Jamie Roberts, whose previous work includes The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, the result is something more akin to a horror or an action movie than it is to a documentary; although most viewers will doubtless know the outcome, it’s still a film filled with overarching tension.
Structured through timestamps, in an effort to create a semblance of order from the disorder, it starts at 10.35pm, on what Officer Michael Fanone describes as an ordinary day, with no hint as to what would occur. And yet even as Trump is giving his speech, riling the crowd up from behind his podium, various right-wing reporters, along with Proud Boys and a mob of Trump loyalists, start pulling towards the Capitol.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to some of the main talking heads. Eddie Block, the self-described “crippled guy in the scooter who films everything”, attempts to describe the Proud Boys’ values: “You don’t beat up women, you don’t go against the Unites States, stuff like that.” If viewers are looking for more articulate descriptions of the movement, they will be disappointed.
What follows is a record of the battles between the rioters and the security and police forces defending the Capitol. Cops were soon overwhelmed by a hostile crowd wielding pitchforks and baseball bats, using scaffolding poles and barriers as weapons and making it into the building with a terrifying efficiency. Leah Han, staff assistant to Nancy Pelosi, gives an emotional testimony as she describes cowering under a desk with her colleagues as the rioters attempt to gain access. Meanwhile, some of the mob are filmed sparking up joints under the impressive domes of the building, while others wander around like tourists taking in the sights. Still others are attempting to batter down doors to get into the Congress meeting, where the politicians were clocking that something was very, very wrong. They phone their loved ones and say their prayers in the balconies as they wait to be evacuated to safe rooms.
And the viewer is right there with them – both from the Trumpers’ point of view and that of the police, the politicians and those working in the building. The film takes us into the belly of the beast, the eye of the storm – we feel both the tension and the fear. None more so than towards the end of the documentary, as police protect a tunnel into the building with the sheer force of their bodies. It seems an impossible task – the crushing claustrophobia is apparent, and the footage is like something out of a medieval battle scene, as the officers find themselves vastly outnumbered and having to use the sheer force of their bodies to hold the line.
It’s all contrasted with the laidback talking-head interviews with the protesters months on. None of the MAGA people interviewed is challenged on their views, possibly because they don’t really articulate any. Instead, the director leaves it to the viewer to parse their thoughts. There remains an air of self-satisfied smugness among those who took part in the riots, and none of the anger that was apparent that day. One complains of being held in prison without access to a shower, something he describes as inhumane and compares it to the death penalty; Eddie Block is aghast that police officers didn’t help him down the stairs after the riot was over.
The unresolved anger and grief is instead articulated by the police interviewed, as well as by some of the politicians and aides. There were casualties that day, but the unseen effects also linger – the traumatic brain injuries as well as the PTSD, and the police suicides. In many ways, watching this documentary, one is amazed that there weren’t even more casualties. On a wider scale, the film also gives an insight into how much law and order is built around citizen compliance, and when a large mass of people use their bodies as a weapon they are all-but unstoppable. It’s a tale of our times, and it needs no embellishment, capturing the uncertainty of our post-truth era with clarity and precision.