YEAR: 2023 / COUNTRY: UNITED STATES / LANGUAGE: ENGLISH / RUN TIME: 94 MIN
Director(s): Jesse Moss, Tony Gerber
Award-winning filmmakers Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber seize a unique opportunity to bring audiences tableside to a simulation that dramatically escalates the threat posed by January 6, 2021. With the grip of a thriller, War Game posits active-duty military breaking ranks to join an insurrection that soon spreads to other state capitals, yielding a chilling moment when it’s unclear whether the president fully commands the armed forces. The simulation’s outcome hinges on several inflection points, from the government’s capacity to counter the disinformation that’s effectively spread by the insurgent side to the potential invocation of the Insurrection Act (i.e., the last resort). While the exercise served to stress test our institutions, the film is a critical wake-up call, underscoring the urgent need for bipartisanship in safeguarding American democracy.
Written By Darren Zakus
Rating: 2 out of 5
War Game has a great premise in which the documentary is based upon, but the actual unscripted role-play exercise responding to an insurrection attempting to overthrow the government unfortunately does not generate the riveting discussion and scenario that the audience will be wanting from such an experiment.
As an experiment and learning exercise, a role-play exercise war room simulating a government response insurrection trying to overthrow a government in protest of what some view as a stolen election with the nation's armed forces supporting the insurrectionists is a fascinating concept. It’s a chilling idea to think of given what happened on January 6, 2021 in Washington D.C., but one that the United States needs to contemplate as the events of that date showed that it is not as remote of a possibility they initially thought it to be. The idea of watching this unfold in a documentary is a fascinating, as it gives the public insight into how crisis control decisions are made on a national level in an attempt to maintain order and prevent a civil war from breaking out, and with Jesse Moss, the director of Boys State and Girls State (which also premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), at the helm it should be a riveting documentary. But for factors beyond the control of Moss and his team who were invited to film this exercise organized by the United States government, War Game misses the mark and delivers a frustratingly simplistic government exercise, never for a second coming close to reaching its potential as a documentary capturing this unique exercise.
With the entire simulation being six hours in length and the documentary being ninety four minutes long, the majority of the simulation is left on the editing room floor. We only get snappy bits of the dialogue, mainly getting the few minutes of dialogue preceding a decision being made for a course of action. It leaves the audience with lots of questions such as what happened to other options that had been mentioned in discussion but ignored in the decision making process. From a viewer’s point of view, these other ideas seem to be ignored in the decision making process, resulting in what appear to be illogical conclusions being reached based on what the audience has experienced and heard discussed in the documentary. The off camera interviews do not add to the context of the exercise, merely reiterating why a repeat of January 6, 2021 cannot happen again. I am in full agreement with this as will the majority of people walking this documentary will also agree, as those who would be supportive of such an insurrection are very unlikely to watch this documentary, repeatedly hammering home this point becomes redundant very quickly. Furthermore, all of the individuals participating in the simulation share similar backgrounds and expertise, this results in very little diversity in the debate as to what actions to take. For the most part, a course of action is proposed and the majority of the individuals agree on it without much debate, which does not make for the most interesting documentary to watch. While I’m sure those in these actual positions will have similar backgrounds, I can’t imagine that everyone would be so agreeable during a theoretical insurrection and move along as if they were picking a meal off the menu at a restaurant. To no fault of Moss and his team, this is the biggest pitfall of the documentary as without any debate and differing views, there is not much interesting discussion to follow throughout the documentary as it feels like the individuals are merely going through the pre-approved actions rather than reacting to an insurrection.
Capturing real life events on camera with the intention of turning them into a documentary without knowing the results is both exciting and challenging for documentarians. It allows the events to unfold without editing and interference, allowing real life to be captured on camera, but with the results unknown, there is an uncertainty about whether it will translate to the engaging story that the documentarians hope to tell. And that is what ultimately sinks War Game. Condensing the events of a six hour war room into a ninety minute document is incredibly restrictive, but with a purely one dimensional response approach to the events simulated due to nearly every participant having a very similar background, War Game becomes a frustrating watch for viewers who are missing significant context to the decisions being made, leaving Jesse Moss and his team to try and create an intriguing narrative out of disappointing material.