During a presidential campaign season when a particular candidate is calling for ideological tests and out-and-out bans on Muslims, the fear of Islamic terrorism is as high as it’s been in years. But, as Daniel Ragussis’ new film “Imperium” makes clear in its opening minutes, there is a domestic danger burning much brighter than anything lurking beyond our borders: neo-Nazis.
After a brief introduction to introverted FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe, continuing to shuck the Harry Potter mold) and his anti-Islamic terrorist work, “Imperium” takes several minutes to turn into something of a documentary, running through a brief, narrative-less history of domestic terrorist incidents perpetrated by skinheads and fascist neo-Nazis. The move sets an ominous tone for the film, though in painting with such a large brush, there are moments where the film, so early in its running, appears to crumble beneath a simplistic didactic message.
From there, though, Ragussis and co. successfully right the ship into the first act. The MacGuffin of “Imperium” is a simple one: several barrels of a chemical agent capable of being catastrophically weaponized have been stole outside of Washington D.C. and Nate’s has to go undercover and infiltrate local neo-Nazi groups to find out where they are. Unlike the usual undercover movies, Nate Foster’s transition into Nate Thomas, a hardened ex-marine inspired by the vitriolic rants of a white supremacist radio personality, is a subtle one, performed by Radcliffe with nuanced poise.
To find some footing in the local skinhead scene, Nate starts at the bottom, falling in with a small-time gang of thugs who heckle interracial couples and march in rallies, but do little else to fight the supposed “race war.” But while Nate arouses the suspicions of some, he falls in quickly with others, particularly Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), an idyllic, intellectual suburban dad who hosts friendly KKK barbecues in the backyard of his picturesque D.C. colonial where the cupcakes are decorated with swastikas and he tells Nate that, with his kids, “love is spelled T-I-M-E.”
Unlike the rough and tumble ganges Nate has felt an easy distance from, Gerry and his ilk resonate with the disenfranchised introvert. Their ideology, however twisted, is built upon the same texts that Nate has used to crafted his own. The notion, as it settles upon Nate as he listens to Bach with Gerry and his family, is a haunting one; the idea that seemingly universal words can be contorted to fit such a volatile and violent set of beliefs. But, unfortunately, “Imperium” never capitalizes on the discord. Radcliffe does his best to instill doubt into Nate, but the script never gives him the internal struggle that the film has so perfectly set up.
Which can be said about a lot of pieces of Ragussis’ movie. For all the intelligence put up on screen — Nate is continually backed into corners, only to think and talk his way out with aplomb — some key aspects of the script fail to live up to the potential of the tension that simmers throughout. Though at times, these sudden collapses in momentum are born of haphazard editing, as the film continually cuts away from the action right when things are heating up, allowing Nate to easily escape time and again.
Which, in a way, is a problem of a film aiming for hyperrealism. The FBI in “Imperium” is not smooth and well organized, it is lucky and often at odds with itself. Same for the myriad skinhead groups. And, despite the impending violence, the film shies away from any out and out action (for all the guns, Chekov would be disappointed). It’s both a buoy and a lead weight, a breath of fresh air and an clumsy, recognizable reality.
“Imperium,” at its best, is a film about the ideological crisis of seeing the principles your worldview is built upon repurposed for hate and bigotry. But once it reaches these highs, the third act mostly squanders them, never fully cashing in on the dissonance it’s built and never pushing into the darkness as far as it should. [B]