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Imperium – A Film Dislocated From Time

Posted by Ava Clark, Wednesday 15th February, 2017

review volunteer blog

Film poster for Imperium (2016). Daniel Radcliffe as Nate Foster

Daniel Ragussis’ 2016 action thriller, Imperium, tells the story of Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), an eager FBI agent who goes undercover as a white supremacist in order to uncover a suspected far-right plot to build a ‘dirty bomb’; a conventional bomb containing radioactive material.

Intelligent, introverted and unassuming, Foster has the ability to relate to others on a human level and is thus enlisted by his colleague, Agent Zamparo (Toni Collette), to infiltrate the tangled subculture of white supremacism and prevent an atrocity on US soil.

Highlighting the evident, but seldom perceived, disparate elements of the white supremacist movement, Foster progresses from an initiate of a violent neo-Nazi group, to a fully inducted member of a zealous brotherhood of ideologues, as part of his search for answers. Each progression requires the winning of new confidences, and with it an insight into the different motivations and personal journeys that lead people down such dark paths.

As a film that places a microscope over one of the most dangerous and unsettling ideologies in the modern world, it is perhaps surprising that Ragussis seeks to humanise some of its most vitriolic proponents in Imperium.

In one scene, a leading member of the white supremacist movement is shown as a caring and tender father, mindful of others swearing in front of his young and impressionable daughter. In another, a young neo-Nazi skinhead, confides in Foster that his membership stems from feelings of fear and isolation, arising from an experience of being bullied as a child.

This desire to subvert expectations is evident in the film’s opening image too, when the seemingly profound statement that “words build bridges into unexplored regions” is - amid a rising backdrop of ominous music – slowly revealed to have been uttered by Adolf Hitler.

In opting to tell a human story that does away with the simplistic caricatures so often witnessed in films of this genre, Imperium deserves no small amount of credit. Its villains are human; they are presented as individuals who arrive at their beliefs, however abhorrent, through all too human insecurities and fears.

The film’s attempt to explore and contrast the different factions present within American fascism, and the tensions between them, is both fascinating and refreshing too. Nate’s journey – which takes in Christian, antisemitic and pseudo-libertarian views – exposes the the rifts present within the white supremacist movement, whilst suggesting, at the same time, a unifying sense of fear and victimization between them all.

Unfortunately, it’s amongst these broad strokes where the film, for all its promise, begins to break down. Opportunities to truly explore the resentments held by members of these groups are never fully realised, with rapid and jarring plot twists standing in the way of any deep and meaningful examination or differentiation between them.

This failure to scratch beneath the surface of the characters involved, ensures that Imperium stands in the shadow of American History X, when it comes to fleshing out the ideology of the movement and the descent into vitriol that its exponents undergo.

The film, released just two months before the surprise election of Donald Trump and the emergence of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement in American politics, also fails to speak of these divided times, where questions of race, identity and opportunity have renewed prominence.

Factions are shown as being angry in isolation, and not feeding from – or, indeed, feeding into – resentments more widely felt within society. With deeper focus and exploration of its characters and their motivations, Imperium could have been a film for our time. Instead it feels, in a very real sense, dislocated from time, providing no special insight into the period in which we live.

It is revealed, amongst the film’s end credits, that Imperium is ‘inspired by real events’, having been based on the true story of Michael German, an FBI agent who went undercover in order to infiltrate the white supremacist movement. In teasing this real-world basis, the film’s inability to flesh out real three-dimensional characters is all the more unfortunate, and leads the viewer to question which elements of the story are real, and which elements are not. This suspension of belief is evident at several key points of the story too, with avenues for tension and suspense failing to being fully realised; Nate manages to maintain his cover through all too convenient – and, at times – improbable acts and explanations.

All criticisms aside, Imperium stands as a compelling and fresh addition to the genre, with Daniel Radcliffe turning in a surprisingly convincing performance as Nate Foster. Though it fails to reach the heights of American History X as a personal drama, and misses opportunities to ask deeper questions of the movement, people and climate currently prevalent in the United States, it does expose some of the fault-lines present within the movement and attempts to tell a human, relatable story.

Suggested Reading:

The Library holds many books and documents relating to fascist movements after the Second World War, some of which is listed below:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Extreme right; American Nazi Party; race relations; films; literary criticism

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