When Dan Reed and Jamie Roberts approached networks about making a film on the storming of the US Capitol — a massive assault on American democracy on the magnitude of 9/11, and all the more shocking since it occurred inside the country – they were greeted with skepticism.
“‘Why do we need a documentary?’ was the answer. “Everyone knows what happened,” Reed adds, referring to his earlier hit, Leaving Neverland.
True, the January uprising – in which hundreds of Trump supporters rioted in protest of the “stolen” election, killing five people and injuring 140 police officers – was live-streamed. Authorities combed over 15,000 hours of video, making it the world’s biggest digital crime scene.
More than 670 individuals have been charged nine months later, and the headlines are still accumulating. However, Reed claims that it was easy to lose sight of the attack’s significance amid the avalanche of information.
“It’s understandable if you think to yourself, ‘What else is there to say about this?’ But the process of integrating many sources into a chronological story… it has significance,” Reed explains via Zoom from his London home.
“You are the one who reveals the hidden shape.”
Four Hours at the Capitol is the result: a detailed, chronological depiction of the events of 6 January, executive produced by Reed and directed by Roberts. Even to those of us watching from afar, the violence that day looked abrupt and overwhelming, but the video depicts the agonizing push-and-pull between protestors and police on the threshold, the tension mounting and then spilling over.
It’s difficult to witness the escalation from mindless hooliganism to hand-to-hand fighting as individuals just performing their jobs become fearful for their lives – particularly knowing the results will be deadly. According to Reed, one executive rejected the concept because it seemed “ripped straight from the headlines.”
Four Hours at the Capitol brings the headlines to life in a chillingly genuine way. “At one point, it turns into an action movie: you’re completely immersed,” Reed adds.
“It is horrifying and shocking to see how divided America has become.”
He and Roberts were working on a film on the Black Lives Matter rallies and social upheaval in the summer of 2020, centered on the reported fatal shooting of two individuals in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by 17-year-old pro-police vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse. They met a gang of teenage filmmakers working for right-wing news sites known as the Riot Squad as a result of that initiative.
“Their commitment to continuously videotaping everything stood out from how events had previously been recorded,” Reed adds. “You and I may believe that their video material is being used with a strong political bias – but they’d probably say the same thing about us.”
When the Capitol was stormed, Reed and Roberts saw the Riot Squad recording right in the middle of the chaos. “We began downloading every piece of footage we could find,” Reed explains.
They were able to piece together the course of events thanks to the quantity of footage from almost every minute, while witnesses told the tale. The Capitol police are on the back foot, the Washington DC police have been called in to fight, the lawmakers and staff are preparing to fight or flee, and the media are trying to keep up.
“It’s never pundits, it’s always players,” Reed adds.
The most remarkable evidence comes from the protesters themselves, who represent a diverse group of people ranging from rubberneckers to those who are obviously out to do damage. Many of them are members of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization (now associated with alt-right extremism) that orchestrated the Capitol assault.
Some people believe in QAnon-related conspiracy.
It’s disturbing to hear them recount the events of that day in their own words, and to see how much pleasure some of them take in them. Were the filmmakers worried about exposing potentially harmful viewpoints?
“We’re obviously very conscious of being perceived as providing those people with oxygen of publicity,” Reed adds before stopping. “However, if you close your ears every time someone with a political viewpoint you disagree with speaks, you’ll never comprehend why 6 January happened… We’re not putting these individuals on a pedestal, but you should put yourself in their shoes.”
When Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin claims “thousands of peaceful patriots standing around” while the spectator sees a bloodied, baying mob – with Griffin whipping them up even more – the video speaks for itself.
“It was extremely violent: this was a full-fledged physical assault on the Capitol and the people defending it,” Reed recalls. “We don’t hold back on that, and that has to say something…
The fact that members of the Proud Boys are permitted to speak is absolutely appropriate, since this is how we will comprehend.”
According to Reed, many of the protesters had to be convinced to join “the enemy,” and despite the fact that every Republican legislator was asked to participate, “only a handful” accepted. Democrats were more forthright, but they needed to be controlled as well.
“The interpretation of what happened has been incredibly politicized,” Reed adds. Some on the right say that the violence was caused by a few rogues among Trump supporters who were peacefully protesting, while others on the left think it was a planned coup.
“It wasn’t either of those things,” Reed explains. “It was a disruptive action, and while it was organized to some extent, I don’t believe many of the people who entered the building on that day had a plan.”
Certainly, the video demonstrates the Capitol police’s “massive failure” to foresee that the Trump gathering might become violent. The crowd easily overcomes the flimsy barrier on the stairs.
“I wouldn’t say that was enough security on a regular day,” Reed adds, “let alone the day the election was certified.”
Later, as rioters wander the building, smoking joints under the rotunda and spreading over the Speaker’s platform (“I just want to let you guys know this is, like, the most sacredest place,” shouts a frantic officer), police hold back 7,000 or 8,000 more at the West Terrace tunnel.
According to Reed, America was on the verge of declaring martial rule. “You can see that there are different impulses within the crowd when an officer is dragged into the mob: one is to smash his face in and kill him – and the other is to save him,” says the author.
“There would have been massive bloodshed – with that level of threat, I think police would have definitely opened fire,” he adds if the House of Commons had been in similar danger. It’s incredible that the Capitol police didn’t notice.”
Instead, as one officer explains in the video – and as the evidence clearly demonstrates – a massive loss of life on both sides was avoided. When Trump eventually urges his loving, fighting fans to go home after four hours, the storm passes.
Trump, who was acquitted by the Senate of instigating the violence, is currently battling a House select committee investigating his role in it. “Of course, he bears a great deal of moral responsibility,” Reed adds.
“I think it’s difficult to avoid that conclusion if you watch the movie.” There will not be a real congressional investigation, nor will there be a bipartisan probe — in many respects, our documentary will serve as the definitive narrative of what occurred that day.”
Four Hours at the Capitol also highlights the human cost via heartbreaking testimony from individuals who thought they would be murdered, as well as those who were almost slain. According to Reed, four police officers committed themselves as a result of the assault. “There was a lot of human suffering involved in this event.”
However, there is a strong sense of outrage from all sides, both those who attacked the Capitol and those who attempted to defend it. It’s a testimony to the profound schism that sparked the violence: “part of the long tail of 9/11,” as Reed puts it, which continues into Biden’s administration.
“There’s a sense of despondency in America, as evidenced by the high suicide rate among the post-industrial white working class, opiate addiction rates, and family breakdowns.” There is a sizable group of individuals who believe they are no longer at the center of the American narrative.
Will President Biden’s massive infrastructure plan begin to address this? Maybe. However, I believe the forces that drove the rioters into the Capitol are still active.”
Indeed, after January 6, participation in right-wing militia organizations has increased dramatically. “And then that opened the way to events that changed the world,” says Reed, referring to the extraordinary violence led by a few dozen dedicated people.
The issue with recording history as it develops, however, is that it may be difficult to predict where it will go. According to Reed, the Capitol assault “is a serious warning for the future.”
“However, I don’t believe any of us fully comprehends what it means at this time.”