Directed By Mark Pellington; Screenplay By Ehren Kruger
Reviewed by Megan Shaw
Monday, August 2 1999, 6:44 PM
Arlington Road is a truly frightening movie. It is a badly-written action film disguised as a political thriller that commits a number of crimes as it cuts a swath through American movie theaters. But none of those crimes are of the edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting, dramatic variety as the film's makers had planned. The crimes surround their use of the movie industry's power over public consciousness to obscure some of the most important issues confronting American society today.
The film's main character is Michael Faraday, played by Jeff Bridges. He is a professor of American history at George Washington University who specializes in the study of domestic terrorism. Faraday lives in suburban Virginia with his son, and becomes suspicious of his neighbors the Langs, played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, after he catches Oliver Lang in some small untruths. He uses his research skills and predisposition to suspicion to drive his effective investigation of the Langs to reveal that they are indeed living behind a cloaked identity, and ultimately involved in anti-federal activity. Faraday is also driven by what is supposed to be a classic revenge motif: his wife, an FBI agent, had been killed in a siege shootout.
With the exception of Faraday's friend Whit Carver, his wife's FBI partner, all of the main characters in the film are white. This is necessarily the case, because the film relies for its dramatic appeal entirely on the public's fear of radical white anti-federalists like Timothy McVeigh and Randy Weaver. Early in the film, Faraday is portrayed teaching a class about domestic terrorism and flashes slides of the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City across the screen, clearly contextualizing the threats his character is focused on within the white-identified, anti-federalist right of which McVeigh and Weaver are two well-known members. But while the film clearly implies that its villains, the Langs, are drawn from this pool, in the film the Langs' whiteness is never made an issue. In most Hollywood movies whites appear in every screen and no mention is made of their whiteness, because audiences are expected to read them as identity-neutral. In Arlington Road the characters are presented in this light. However, in this particular film such identity-neutrality normalizes the Langs and sabotages the plot's connection to its audience's pre-existing fear of terrorism by implying that anyone with a particular ire at the government could be the kind of bomb-blaster that the Langs portray.
The Langs are portrayed as white, but not necessarily white, a directorial decision that eliminates the need to address the issue of how white supremacist doctrine fits into their anti-federalist motivations. In fact, Oliver Lang as played by the ever-engaging Tim Robbins, is portrayed as having potentially sympathetic motivations for his actions: in one scene he details bureaucratic injustices that impoverished his family and drove his father to suicide. It is not clear to the audience whether the story he tells is just a tall tale, or an attempt to present his character as somewhat rounded by giving him some understandable motivations.
Arlington Road is similarly vague in its allusions to the Langs' Christian faithy and their friends wear crucifixes. But the suggestion that they are Christians is left completely aside just as the implication that they are white-identified. This is confusing, because a large proportion of non-fiction white separatists are guided by the Christian Identity doctrine that whites of northern European descent are the true Israelites. By being coy about revealing where the Langs fit within the spectrum of white anti-federalists, the film walks away from an enormous opportunity to prompt people who are anxious about the next bombing of a federal building to reflect on where white supremacy fits within their own familiar belief systems.
Arlington Road further loses its historical relevance by locating the Langs and their anger at federal authority within the suburban middle class. This successfully distracts attention from the economic conflicts among whites that are being acted out in the '90s. The film portrays the Langs as SUV-driving yuppies with white-collar careers who reside in an ivy-clad brick suburban home. Such a characterization does little to align them with such real-life anti-government activists as federal building bombers Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh or the Montana Freemen. While the film obviously tries to draw on Americans' growing public concern with such activists in order to produce dramatic effect, the unrealistic fictional portrayal ends up counteracting that intent. The conflicts within American society that led to the Oklahoma City bombing are not the kinds of conflicts that are commonly engaged in by SUV-driving suburbanites. White anti-federalists, such as Nichols and McVeigh, are in general much more likely to be from small towns or rural backgrounds, from the working class, and former members of the armed forces. The white separatist manifesto The Turner Diaries (which happens to open in Arlington Virginia), is told from the perspective of disenfranchised white people who have been alienated by society's materialism and express their class-based rage through ethnic hatred. When white separatists target the federal government, they are privileging their hatred of authority, even white authority, over their hatred of other races. You wouldn't think it from watching Arlington Road, but Americans are going to have to address growing class divisions within white circles before they can rest easily at night, unafraid of another Oklahoma City bombing.
It was probably too much to expect relevant social commentary from a major motion picture, even though the film's promotional literature says that Faraday studies "the culture of right-wing groups." The film's approach to the topic of the radical right is completely obscured by the relocation of the activists, the Langs, within an ideologically and geographically insignificant space. However, even if there had been any such content left unobscured, it would be whitewashed by the scene-to-scene action which is a dull hodgepodge of car chases, references to The Bad Seed (the Langs' emotionless little blonde daughters), and stereotypical B-movie cliché: After Faraday's girlfriend is killed because she picked up the Langs' trail, Oliver Lang tells Faraday that she had "gotten in the way." The film attempts to work against cliché only in its portrayal of the FBI, which is presented as oddly multi-cultural, yet realistically error-ridden.
By casting Robert Gossett as FBI agent Whit Carver, the film presents an FBI that is humanized by a non-white character who also happens to be the most sane adult character in the film. His is the only adult character that survives to the end of the film uncompromised by either nefarious activity or unbalanced paranoia. The FBI's errors that led to the death of Faraday's wife are portrayed as institutional errors, and are not reflected onto the Whit Carver character. I appreciate that filmmakers seek to portray non-whites in positions of power and reason in mainstream cinema. I hope their doing so is an effort to naturalize and legitimate the presence of non-whites in such positions off-screen. However, in the context of the plot of this particular film, that casting decision has other ramifications. In real life, the FBI is a well-guarded outpost of the traditionally white elite that governs this country, and actions such as the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building specifically target that elite. The presence of Whit Carver as a target in the film successfully displaces the Lang's political hostility away from the real-life alienating white elite and onto a phantom sane, friendly, multicultural authority.
Where Arlington Road displays its greatest realism is in its depiction of FBI misconduct in the death of Faraday's wife. The scenario of her death is recounted in flashback, and is closely reminiscent of the Ruby Ridge fiasco. It shows us a team of FBI agents spying on the home of a rural family who, FBI traces show, have recently arranged for shipment of a number of guns. The FBI, concerned that the family are anti-government activists and believing that the weapons are illegal, makes an armed approach to the house. The father of the house isn't home at the time of the raid. The children and daughter-in-law defend their property with guns drawn, and a shootout ensues in which both civilians and FBI agents are killed. However, in a plot turn that draws more on the siege of the Branch Davidians than on the Ruby Ridge massacre, it is later revealed that the FBI's information about the illegality of the weapons is incomplete, and that the raid never should have been instigated in the first place.
The producers of Arlington Road seem to have had some conflicting ideas about these plot elements. While the promotional literature on the film's official website says that Faraday was "widowed when his FBI agent wife is killed by a right-wing group," it is left unstated in the film itself whether they really were right-wing extremists, or like the Branch Davidians a family that was inappropriately confused with right-wing extremists because they were in the gun business. I sense that the filmmakers wanted to be a little bit daring with their content, but couldn't reconcile themselves to coming down clearly in favor of FBI misuse of powers, and so contradicted their own points.
Ultimately Arlington Road collapses under the weight of its own vagaries and internal self-sabotage of its own plot elements. Not even its atypical ending is enough to pull together the narrative tension and drama that is undermined everywhere else throughout the film. There would normally be little significance in another B movie passing through theaters this summer. But when Arlington Road is the bad movie, there is more at stake than just a loss of revenue to its backers. There is a disservice to any potential public dialogue we might have about the whites who violently reject racial pluralism, while retreating into ideologies of white supremacy.
Arlington Road is a Columbia Tristar Release