At its core, Imperium is a examination of misdirection, of the idea that we’re often deceived by others into seeing what they want us to see, rather than what’s actually there in front of us. Yet, in implicitly arguing that the war on Islamic terrorism has distracted Americans from the equally dangerous national security threat posed by white supremacists, the film itself uses narrative deception to misdirect the audience from its own flawed plot construction, which unfortunately blunts the impact of its otherwise cogent insights about the nature of modern terrorism and the war against it. As Orson Welles’s F for Fake and other cinematic deconstructions of film’s fundamentally illusory nature have taught us, movies inherently manipulate audiences into seeing only what filmmakers deem necessary, which is always at best only a part of truth, and at worst a distortion of it.
To an extent, Imperium acknowledges its complicity in such misdirection, using plot twists where deceivers are themselves deceived in ways that mirror the film’s core message about the layers of duplicity that underlie the war on terror. Daniel Ragussis’s film follows a young F.B.I. agent, Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), as he infiltrates a white supremacist group that his colleague, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), believes is planning to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil. From the opening scene, where Nate is duped by his colleagues into entrapping a young Muslim immigrant, to the increasingly blurry line between observation and incitement that Nate straddles with the neo-Nazis, Imperium demonstrates both the fatal proximity and deceptive distance that can exist between the words and deeds of extremists.
The film examines the parameters of freedom of thought in our society by asking to what extent extremists should be held accountable for crimes where undercover agents are responsible for transforming the would-be terrorist’s thoughts into tangible crimes. It also considers the extent to which those who practice hate speech should be held accountable for the actions that result from their incitement. To the credit of the filmmakers, Imperium acknowledges that it’s nearly impossible to predict the results of violent thoughts and inciting words, a recognition of the delicate balance that always exists in an open society between the need for security on the one hand and the safeguarding of freedom of thought and expression on the other.
While the film mostly provides a nuanced portrayal of the way our imagination can cause us to see terrorist threats where none exist, it betrays its initial skepticism about the government’s conflation of verbal and physical transgressions with a deus ex machina ending that undermines the rigorous evenhandedness of the preceding analysis. A recognition of the misguided nature of Nate’s mission, where Angela deems his targets guilty because of their beliefs rather than any concrete evidence, would have both made more sense in narrative terms and been truer to the film’s agnostic spirit.
However, until its disappointing conclusion, Imperium makes for bold political cinema, particularly in the screenplay’s portrayal of white supremacists. From bourgeois hausfraus who feed their children homemade cookies with swastikas on them to bullied teenagers and polite, educated professionals who appreciate the way Leonard Bernstein conducts Tchaikovsky’s works, these extremists are so disturbing because their vile ideology is so thoroughly concealed beneath their otherwise innocuous humanity.
Imperium evinces an understanding of the the timelessness of questions about the degree to which a democracy can tolerate hate speech and incitements to violence, which are often fueled by reckless conspiracy theories. The film exemplifies the old axiom that the political spectrum is really a circle that bends and comes together at its opposite extremes. It shows the manner in which a shared hostility toward Western democracy, capitalism, and an imaginary Zionist conspiracy underlie the destructive fantasies of white supremacists, Islamic extremists, and radical leftists.
When a worldly white supremacist says that he wants non-whites to enjoy the same racial purity for themselves in the non-Western world that he envisions for America, his words echo the racist, postcolonial fantasies of nationalists and xenophobes of all races and creeds the world over. In equating the ideologies of white supremacists and Islamic radicals, the film reveals the similarities not only of their methods and results, but also of their shared values, conspiracy theories, and ultimate visions of the world. Both groups are pushing for the same race war, one they hope will lead to the overthrow of Western democracy and the values it represents.