Wide Angle

The Cardiganed Terrorist Next Door

Arlington Road is one of the boldest film depictions of far-right terrorism—with one glaring omission.

Tim Robbins smirking as he holds Jeff Bridges up against a wall, in a scene from Arlington Road.
Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins in Arlington Road. Screen Gems

Twenty years ago this summer, Arlington Road, a film starring two future Oscar winners with an acclaimed script from a debutant screenwriter, arrived in theaters. Mining a lucrative decadelong slate of domestic thrillers—The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Pacific Heights, and other “fill-in-the-blank from hell” movies— Arlington Road blended well-executed genre machinations with a quietly radical twist.

That twist? The neighbor from hell, Oliver Lang, played by Tim Robbins, is a far-right anti-government terrorist. Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a widowed history professor who begins to suspect that his cardigan-rocking new grill buddy, Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins), is a Timothy McVeigh in wait. Both men’s families­—and young children—become ensnared in the splintered confrontations, revelations, and horrors to come.

Released only four years after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, Arlington Road drives American cinematic depictions of far-right violence beyond frothing, rural KKK grotesques and toward realities harder for white audiences to contemplate: terrorists masked by whiteness, suburbia, and education, difficult to spot even at social distance, operating silently—until not. Two very different decades later, the movie serves as a dark, underappreciated totem of what much of America will and won’t consider when it talks about terrorism.

Depictions of the far-right haunt American film. The first genuine American blockbuster by most accounts was 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, a celebratory origin story of the KKK. In 1937’s Black Legion, Humphrey Bogart plays a factory worker who joins the titular violent, anti-immigrant group after believing himself marginalized at work in favor of recent immigrant co-workers. In other old Hollywood films, far-right politics are often elided, or their supporters presented as heroic. In 1940’s Santa Fe Trail, Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn star as freshly scrubbed West Point grads George Custer and future Confederate Army Gen. Jeb Stuart, respectively. Their mission? Hunting the wild-eyed abolitionist John Brown, whose politics the film glosses over and who is presented as a version of the Joker, a raving mad dog denying America peace.

More recently, skinheads, the KKK, and the like have been used as dime-story baddies or objects of revenge narratives in films like A Time to Kill or Mississippi Burning. Films like those supply queasy, self-congratulatory arcs: initial act of horrific, racist violence; entrance of white champion; second-act change of heart from white character previously aligned with racist villains; public justice; catharsis; vague nods toward reconciliation.

Arlington Road offers no such false comfort. The film loads reams of post-Vietnam far-right flashpoints into its story. Faraday’s FBI agent wife was killed in a thinly veiled version of the Ruby Ridge incident before the events of the film. Ideas around anti-government thought, eminent domain, surveillance, and unheeded warnings of domestic terror murmur beneath the film’s surface. It doesn’t “otherize” the terror cell we eventually learn is led by Lang; he and his followers look like the gentry of any Northern Virginia subdevelopment. It deconstructs the “lone wolf” theory as both a dramatic tool and as a political buzzword. Its last few scenes are more disturbing the more you think about them.

But 20 years later, Arlington Road also embodies a crucial limitation of many movies that depict far-right terror on screen. For all its provocations, the movie imagines white far-right American terrorists who are ready to bomb buildings—but are seemingly uninterested in anti-Semitic and racist ideologies. That strains credulity, even for its time. The movie now strikes me as bold, frightening, and a little too coy at the same—both a remarkably political thriller to have been a major studio release in the 1990s and one that doesn’t quite deliver on its ambition. I wondered why it didn’t go further than it did. So I called Arlington Road screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who went on to write megahits like The Ring and Transformers, and asked about the genesis of his first produced script.

Kruger told me he wrote the first draft in spring of 1996, a year after the bombing in Oklahoma City. Shocked by the attack, he said he wanted to “process this notion that Americans could be so angry with their own government, and their own system of government, that they would use violence against it.”

The side of the building is completely blasted off, exposing the inside. The entire structure is crumbling.
The north side of the Albert P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the bombing on April 19, 1995. Bob Daemmrich/AFP/Getty Images

Raised in metro D.C. by two federal employees, Kruger made his hometown the setting of the film. He told me he sees the tension in Arlington Road as a far graver, Hitchcockian (he cited 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt as an influence) vision of the serious conversations he remembered between the more liberal and more conservative adults—adults mostly employed by the federal government—in his neighborhood. “The story is trying to explore the essential schism in politics: the view that the government exists to help people versus the view that government exists to stay out of people’s way,” he said.

In the film, Robbins’ Lang narrates the source of his rage in a monologue. The Bureau of Land Management appropriated the water on his family’s farm, rendering them destitute and precipitating his father’s suicide. The federal government’s voraciousness destroyed Lang’s family “all because some bureaucrat stuck a pin in a map,” he hisses. Kruger said he located Lang’s rage as part of tradition: “The history of the nation is full of individuals and groups who believe that they are a resistance against tyranny.”

The film seems game to explore ideas like this. In his George Washington University classroom, Faraday delivers a monologue parallel to Lang’s, reminding his students that America has always had violent insurgencies. He pleads with his dead wife’s FBI colleague that something is amiss with his neighbor. Faraday becomes another American Cassandra, another kind of “lone wolf” ignored by an unholy bureaucratic largesse.

But Lang’s personal grievances remain mostly personal. Arlington Road doesn’t really probe the ideology of the far-right. The film makes it clear that Lang and his people are neither KKK nor neo-Nazis. The film features a single passing shot of a swastika in a file; it’s at the edge of a frame in a shot of Faraday’s study as he digs into Lang’s past. The symbol is solely there to establish the character’s credibility as a scholar of the right. Asked about the absence of explicit anti-Semitic and racist material in the film and whether producers and financial backers might have had something to do with it, Kruger told me, “There was never a push for more identity politics in it. For the movie to work, there needs to be doubt as to what level of villain he [Lang] is, or if he is a villain at all.”

Kruger’s use of “identity politics” here seemed telling, as if my question was infused with the politics of our moment, rather than foundational to the depiction of these groups. Many seemed similarly disinclined to engage when some critics questioned the depiction of Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mindhunter this summer. “Charles Manson was a white supremacist. Why can’t pop culture seem to admit it?” a Los Angeles Times headline asked.

Yet when I asked David Neiwert, a longtime chronicler of the far-right and the author of 2017’s Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, about the absence of racist or anti-Semitic material in the film, he contextualized the choice. Neiwert told me he would align Lang with the “patriot” movement of the early 1990s, individuals and groups who were more interested in the “New World Order and gun control” and had “sublimated” racist and anti-Semitic thought into their presentation.

Then again, the wall between the patriot movement and explicitly racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric cracked. And then vanished. The Turner Diaries, a racist dystopian novel, inspired Timothy McVeigh (the degree to which it did is a matter of contention); as Slate reported in its Standoff podcast, the Weaver family of Ruby Ridge read white power literature and belonged to the apocalyptic, racist Christian Identity church, and its rural isolation was in preparation for an anticipated race war.

In other words, conspiracies about one-world governments and cabals of elites who run the world require anti-Semitism. Fretting about the decline of “traditional America” demands racism.

In 2019, the political spirit in Arlington Road feels anachronistic, if not credulity-straining. But gaps in the film’s politics might be a market necessity for a film of this size. As Kruger reminded me, “It’s extremely difficult to get any movie about contemporary American politics made.” (I need not point further than The Hunt, the Blumhouse thriller about a group of elites hunting flyover Americans for sport, which had its release canceled last month after a Trump tweet.) Besides, whatever conflations Arlington Road may make, it largely avoids other dangerous flaws that disfigure other movies about the far-right.

Take one that was released a year earlier: When American History X was released in 1998, critics found its literal black-and-white depictions of a suburban California family’s descent into the skinhead neo-Nazi movement harrowing. But in the years since its release, another group of viewers have latched onto the story: skinheads themselves.

“[White supremacists] love American History X,” Neiwert told me. “People on Stormfront message boards will write about how cool Edward Norton’s character was.” Yes, the film argues that racist thinking warps your life and will ruin it, but it also presents Norton’s Derek Vinyard as a kind of Byronic hero. Former FBI agent and Brennan Center for Justice fellow Mike German told me that while American History X attempts to show the tragedy of getting involved in the white power world, the white supremacists in the film—Norton’s character especially—are empowered, offering potential recruits the image of “this powerful guy who, by force of will, has his way.” The film showed how far-right recruitment works and darkly embodied that same rhetoric.

When I asked Neiwert and German about what advice they’d give to filmmakers or novelists taking up hard-right movements in their work, they each emphasized the challenge of showing that real people fall into these groups. Neiwert said that “the descent into the rabbit hole is pretty incremental. It’s rare that they are indoctrinated overnight.” German mentioned how important it is to show the “absurdity of these groups—a loser and his three cousins sitting around a diner in Ohio talking about worldwide revolution.”

The 2016 film Imperium, co-written by German and based on his experiences as an undercover agent, got close to the dual imperative of absurdity and mundanity within contemporary far-right movements. It shows an undercover FBI agent played by Daniel Radcliffe descending into the world of white power movements. He struggles to differentiate between potential large-scale threats and the merely pitiful white pride conventiongoers whose odious views never metastasize into violence. German’s imperative also reminded me of two films by black filmmakers that did almost exactly that, in both Arlington Road’s era and ours, using foolish characters and deft tones to unpack the far-right: John Singleton’s Higher Learning, from 1995, and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman present their white supremacist characters as wan losers. They serve as dangerous antagonists, yes, but the films frame them as pathetic social failures whose ideologies warp them further still. It feels very important that the KKK bunglers accidentally blow themselves up in BlacKkKlansman’s third act—they need to be simultaneously dangerous and embarrassing.

Despite its limitations, Arlington Road deserves a revisit in a post-Charlottesville America. Even with what it fails to make explicit, the clever mirroring of Robbins’ Lang and Bridges’ Faraday reminds us of the perilous falsehood of the lone wolf theory. German connected it to America’s own historical amnesia: “The film argues that government has an interest in naming a lone offender, to be able to say ‘This is a crazy person, not part of our society,’ without realizing that these ideas are part of America,” he said. “They are part of a philosophy and ideology that go back to colonialism, slavery, genocide of indigenous people, disparities in our criminal justice system.”

Arlington Road reminds viewers how comparatively easy and satisfying it is to track down individual actors while failing to name and address the broad, poisonous ideas that both circulate today and have always nestled within American politics. A wide swath of American monstrosity has always been in sweaters, speaking politely, happy to take your kid on their scouting trips, keeping their plans and their fantasies just out of public view until they decide the time is right.