Doc Talk: From Revolution to De-evolution at the Nantucket Film Festival

By Peter Keough

The documentaries War Game and Devo take up the topic of insurrection, political and cultural.

A scene from Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s War Game.

Even if voters manage to defeat Donald Trump in the election on November 5 he might well, as he did in 2020, attempt another coup when the vote is being certified in Congress on January 6. This time, as Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s War Game (2023) warns us, he and his minions will have learned from the mistakes of their first attempt. One of several urgent, outstanding documentaries at this year’s Nantucket Film Festival (June 19-24), it screens at the White Heron Theatre on June 20 at 3 p.m. and will be followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers and several of the film’s participants.

Unlike the exploitative flummery of Alex Garland’s Civil War, this film owns up to its real world connections. The narrative follows the developments of a “war game” designed by a non-partisan group of veterans called Vet Voice. The exercise is being enacted by what they describe as “a bipartisan group of U.S. defense, intelligence, and elected policymakers spanning five presidential administrations.” The purpose of this latter-day Seven Days in May (1964) is to analyze the potential strategies and possible outcome of another such coup scenario.

As happened in 2020, here the incumbent President John Hotham (portrayed by former Democratic Governor of Montana Steve Bullock ) has won the contest but his opponent, Robert Strickland, refuses to concede and insists the election was rigged and invalid.

Thousands of violent pro-Strickland demonstrators breach the Capitol, forcing the gathered Congress to flee and ending the deliberations to certify the vote. The president, his cabinet, and advisors have gathered in a situation room to address the crisis and have six hours to come up with a solution that preserves our democracy. Meanwhile, unlike in 2020, turncoat members of the National Guard have abetted the Capitol demonstrators. Meanwhile,  other seditious outbreaks threatening to overthrow local and state governments are popping up across the country. This is all being orchestrated by a militant Christo-fascist group called the Order of Columbus headed by the renegade Lt. General Roger Simms — based on real-life, Trump-pardoned felon Michael Flynn.

Among those playing on the insurrection team, the so-called “Red Cell,” are Kris Goldsmith, who is first seen scoping out the logistics of the Capitol’s defenses and plotting out tactics for broaching them. Goldsmith and his Red Cell colleagues have taken to heart MAGA gadfly Steve Bannon’s advice to “flood the zone with shit.” They unleash online a barrage of misinformation about the scale of the ongoing uprisings and the dependability of the armed forces, thus intensifying the chaos with additional “fog of war,” as Administration members put it, making it difficult to know what is real and what is propaganda.

With his shaved head, imposing beard, and intense, aquiline stare, Goldsmith indeed looks the part of a hardened insurrectionist. As he points out in a sidebar interview, he might at one time have been heading in that direction. A disgruntled veteran of the Iraq war, suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, and seemingly discarded by the military he served, he could have joined the ranks of the seditionists had he not seen the light. Instead, Goldsmith put together an organization called Task Force Butler to investigate and combat this pernicious trend. (His story is told in more depth and detail in Charlie Sadoff’s 2023 documentary Against All Enemies). But, if there is one crucial difference between the situation in 2020 and a potential repeat, it is the specter of members of the military and of law enforcement organizations breaking their oath to protect the Constitution and joining the uprising.

Now, as the devil’s advocate, Goldsmith sees the coup’s best strategy as goading the administration into overplaying its hand, forcing violent confrontations that culminate in the spectacle of US troops gunning down US citizens and thus inspiring an outbreak of civil war. As the time ticks down and the members of the administration — who at times appear as beleaguered as those in Dr. Strangelove (1964) — struggle to respond to an ever-deteriorating situation, will the President resort to the nuclear option of invoking the Insurrection Act or will he stay his hand and allow local authorities to resolve the disorder?

To illustrate the hazards of a too forceful intervention, War Game presents a montage of several past instances where such a policy backfired. Among those included is the response to the 1970 anti-Vietnam War demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio in which four students were shot and killed by members of the National Guard.

A scene from Chris Smith’s Devo.

Attending the school at the time was aspiring artist and musician Jerry Casale. He was there when the shooting happened. Two of his friends were among the dead. As he recalls in one of the more compelling moments in Chris Smith’s documentary Devo (screens June 22 at 8:30 p.m. at the Dreamland Theatre), he thought that after this outrage things would change. But nothing did.

So he and fellow Kent State student Mark Mothersbaugh founded Devo, part rock-and-roll band, part conceptual art project, part Dadaist provocation. The group was dedicated to challenging consumerism and rankling received cultural and political ideas by way of an assaultive absurdity. Pushing a pseudo philosophy of “de-evolution” — the ironic notion that given the horrific state of the world not only was the human race regressing to its primitive roots but that was not necessarily a bad thing — they turned out songs, performances, and videos that mocked the notion of commercial success. When they started achieving such success — however briefly — with hit songs like 1980’s “Whip It,” the band was faced with the paradox. Could they continue to court celebrity status as long as it was a way of subverting the notion that such celebrity had value?

As in American Movie (1999), his sad, hilarious study of would-be auteur Mark Borchardt, Smith in Devo takes up the cause of failed artistic aspirations that nonetheless succeed in undermining the values they challenge. Too bad such desperate cultural insurrections as these do not have the impact of the one perpetrated on January 6.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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