Movie Review – Arlington Road

Arlington Road (1999)
Written by Ehren Krueger
Directed by Mark Pellington

On April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was destroyed by a domestic terrorist truck bombing. The people responsible were Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, right-wing extremists. They met during U.S. Army basic training in 1988 at Fort Benning. Radicalization came via right-wing propaganda spurred by the Ruby Ridge standoff. This incident involved the FBI, who suspected Randy Weaver was involved in a gun smuggling operation for white supremacists, surrounding the Weaver family home. The result was the death of Weaver’s wife and son, with Weaver himself being captured. The white supremacist survived until May 2022, when he passed away after serving time in prison. As with all reactionaries, McVeigh & Nichols lashed out at innocent people resulting in the murder of 168 people, including children, in the Federal Building’s employee childcare facility.

Of course, the right-wing couldn’t accept that someone holding their beliefs would do such a thing. So, an industry of even deeper conspiracy was fashioned so that these people could continue ignoring the evil of their belief system. They were not wrong to be angry at the U.S. government; as the saying goes, “a broken clock is right twice a day.” However, their actual grievance with the American government was that they were not being given the status of superiority they believed was their divine right. I know this because I was raised by people that lived on the very edge of this dark, plunging hell hole. My parents were terrified enough of the consequences that they never did anything. However, my father was misanthropic enough that he moved his family out to almost the middle of nowhere. Myself and my three siblings were homeschooled from kindergarten through high school. Our education was provided by a melange of reactionary curricula from publishers like Bob Jones University and Abeka Books. Yet, in the film Arlington Road, inspired by these real-life events, there is a complete absence of any ideology for the terrorists. They are just generically “bad.”

The film begins with a young boy named Brady (Mason Gamble) stumbling down a suburban street, his hands bloodied and severely injured. He’s found and brought to the hospital by a stranger, Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges). We learn that Faraday is a widower; his wife was an FBI agent killed in the line of duty during a Ruby Ridge-style incident. He’s a single father now but has started a relationship with his graduate student Brooke (Hope Davis). In addition, Faraday is a professor at George Washington University specializing in terrorism (how convenient). 

Brady is the son of Faraday’s new neighbors, Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins) and his wife Cheryl (Joan Cusack). They are incredibly grateful for Faraday taking action to help their son, and a friendship is cultivated. Oliver reveals that he’s an architect, but there’s something about the blueprints he keeps that unsettle Faraday. Eventually, he realizes there’s something sinister about the Lang family. However, by the time he alerts the authorities, it’s too late, and Faraday has had a trap sprung around him that poses him as a radical domestic terrorist. 

Arlington Road seems, on the outside, like a relevant film, but when you examine the terrorists and their ideology (or lack thereof), it becomes a hollow exploitative thriller with a decent twist ending. While the Langs are coded as “old-fashioned,” the movie never connects these seemingly innocuous beliefs and how they funnel people into right-wing extremism. If you didn’t know the background of the events I mentioned from the 1990s, you wouldn’t know where on the political spectrum. It’s clear the script borrows heavily from McVeigh & Nichols, and it’s good that they were not didactic, but it would have been nice to at least hint this comes from a predominately right-wing American Christian vein. Compare it to films post-9/11, where Islam seems to be front & center in every portrayal of a Middle Eastern terrorist.

The truth about domestic terrorism in the United States is that the right wing dominates it. The January 6th terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol is just one recent instance. In communities throughout the U.S., domestic terrorist cells are using the threat of violence to try and scare LGBTQ+ people into hiding. The fact that McVeigh & Nichols met & became radicalized in the military is vital as the country’s entire “security” infrastructure, from the military (foreign) to the local police (domestic), is infested with fascists. Look at what is happening in Atlanta now, with left-wing community activists protesting the construction of a police city being met with outright murder and intensifying the police’s violence when the harmed speak out against it. The governor of Georgia has mobilized 1,000 National guardsmen to send into Atlanta. Their purpose is to crush and kill, if necessary, any dissent from the establishment. The establishment is white-dominated. So why aren’t these white supremacists happier? White people still control everything in the country.

The white supremacists you are most likely to encounter in your community aren’t political leaders or wealthy people backing these movements. Instead, you’re going to meet the poor disgruntled white proletariat who think they still have a shot at wealth & power. That illusion is kept alive in their minds through a steady daily diet of reactionary propaganda (Tucker Carlson, Matt Walsh, you know, the usual morons). These media voices keep the white workers thinking that they experience such dissatisfaction in their lives due to BIPOC, LGBTQ+, Antifa, or whatever comes up on the wheel of the marginalized in the day’s talking points for the right-wing simply by visibly existing. 

Of course, the true source of misery for the white proletariat is none of these things. They are miserable because the wage gap is intentionally kept from staying in sync with the cost of living. They are unhappy because they live in unreality; they gaze at images shaped by the wealthy & powerful that are fashioned to create eternal dissatisfaction. In that way, the worker destroys their mind, body, and soul in pursuit of this unattainable success. When the workers show that they are disgruntled, the wealthy trot out the same scapegoats and point the angry laborers in that direction. 

Why haven’t the workers caught on to this grift? Because the same people who control the media also control the curriculum used in schools. They offer you two options: become part of the professional class (which is conditioned to look down on manual labor & service work) or laboring slaves til the day you die. Neither path results in a release from this oppressive system, though. Instead, the white-collar workers cultivate their own boutique neuroses that plague them similarly to the blue-collar laborer breakdown. Likewise, the political system offers two shades of the same corporate-controlled, wealth-hoarding elite. One is more vocally prejudiced, while the other is more discreet in how they perpetuate marginalization. Look at how both conservatives & liberals trip over their own feet praising the strongarm of the establishment: the police & military. 

Arlington Road pushes a similar unreality. The Langs are terrorists because they “don’t like America” without the film ever really unpacking why. This positions both the violent reactionary and the left-wing activist as “all the same” in their anger towards the system. Historically, the hammer comes down harder on the left wing than the right in a very calculated way. Is the right wing a genuine threat to those who currently hold power? Of course not. For all the guns the right-wingers own, they rarely point them at the brutalizers in society (the police); they fashion bogeymen out of marginalized groups. Those in authority have nothing to fear from an easily manipulated & swayed reactionary population that holds an incoherent ideology of despising America while waving the flag like their life depends on it.

Who did the FBI find to be the biggest threat in the 1960s? The Black Panthers. Why? Because they were operating a free breakfast program in inner cities. The guns didn’t scare the feds; the care of the masses did. Note how many states & municipalities have laws against providing food & water to the homeless and refugees at the border. Empathy & the cultivation of community is what those in power fear the most. They have nightmares of the day when all of us: the working class and the working poor, join together and forge a future without them, breaking their monopoly of power. 

The reactionary seeks change in their favor immediately, conditioned to believe every aspect of their life should be “on demand.” The revolutionary understands that the kind of change we seek takes a long time & a lot of work. Those changes likely won’t even be seen in our lifetime, but the struggle toward them is worth it. Unfortunately, fear keeps so many people clinging to their reactionary thinking, spurred on by a media that inundates them with images of death every day, 24/7. The establishment wants us to fear ourselves, and through this propaganda campaign, they have transformed some people who didn’t start out that way into raging balls of violence, ready to lash out at the tiniest perceived slight. 

Arlington Road fails as a film because it misses the point of the very terrorist actions it was inspired by. It seeks to make money rather than honestly portray the ideology of the terrorists that killed hundreds in the 1990s. Instead, it positions the government as perpetually the “good guys.” Nowhere in this story is leftism represented. Instead, it’s a horror story about not following the neoliberal order and how we shouldn’t trust our neighbors because they want us to stray from the path. Of course, your reactionary neighbors might be people to fear, so many of them love to exercise their right to bear arms on people who have done them no harm. But, by staying within the context of the false political binary, Arlington Road stands as an important film because it shows Hollywood’s refusal to address the true evil at the root of the United States.


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