Throughout history, certain groups have been chosen for the degradation of serving as scapegoats. As such, group members are held up as examples of everything wrong with society, along with numerous examples of why they cannot be trusted under any circumstances. It’s a sad but certain fact of life, especially when people are outcasts due to characteristics they can’t control: sexuality, skin color, heritage, or gender. This kind of injustice is common and compelling enough to inspire multitudes of films.
But there is also another kind of film, spawned from a belief that this kind of rejection is justified, or at least generally accepted. This is where the righteous action hero comes in, battles a great evil, and proves that good can triumph. Movies with this kind of narrative tend to feature the same recurring factions, since it can be very difficult to justify so much violence against so many. In such cases, sympathizing with such a group is a genuine risk. Few people want to take that risk, especially when said group is one which embraces hate as their core philosophy. Empathizing, or even humanizing them, seems impossible. In this instance, rejection comes from a justified revulsion, borne of a horror of those who would actively and violently subjugate others born different from them. Such behavior seems inhuman in itself.
But in Imperium, this is the kind of behavior idealistic FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe in another…spellbinding performance, I still can’t resist) must emulate in order to take down radical white supremacists, who may be planning an act of terrorism. This is the kind of movie that uses the tagline “inspired by real events” to its best advantage, taking the experiences of former undercover agent Michael German (who has a story credit) and using it to craft a compelling narrative that eschews bright shiny things and dares to take us on a journey into the worst impulses of the human heart.
This quieter approach allows writer-director Daniel Ragussis, who seems more like a seasoned pro than a filmmaker who is actually making his feature-length debut, to show, rather than tell, how things have come to this and how Radcliffe could make it out the other side. As his boss Angela (Toni Collette) points out, the focus on overseas rather than homegrown terrorism has allowed these people to proliferate. And Radcliffe’s Foster has a very particular set of skills, the kind that don’t make for good action movies, which Imperium resolutely commits to. He doesn’t punch his way out of situations, he thinks his way out. This means he and Angela are anomalies in their testosterone-fueled workplace, which makes for a refreshingly, mutually respectful relationship between them.
Radcliffe’s more cerebral approach means that as he mingles more with the various groups he encounters, from neo-Nazis to paramilitary groups to – most chilling of all – smiling residents of sunny and pleasant suburban backyards. Both he and the movie find the humanity that unites us all even at our most despicable. There are few things more chilling than discovering that your worst enemies have twisted the ideals you follow to serve their own purposes. Empathy can be terrifying under such circumstances.
Imperium could hold Nate Foster accountable for some of his actions though (or rather, just one of them). It doesn’t seem to think he should apologize to some of the good people he was forced to hurt during his undercover work. It’s also a shame that the movie couldn’t be more of a biopic, since its inspiration, Michael German, is quite a fascinating figure. But we do live in an era of sequels and spin-offs, along with an election that’s forcing us to pay attention to the enemy within as well as without. So there’s hope that in this case, more of the same could lead to something different.