When a group of insurrectionists took the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 in order to disrupt the counting of electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election, one might have expected the events of the day to resonate, months later, far more than they do. The attack seems at times to be rapidly fading from our cultural memory, a testament to the efficacy of one party’s attempts to hand-wave it away as an enthusiastic and passionate protest that lost control.
Into this cultural forgetting strides HBO’s “Four Hours at the Capitol,” a documentary directed by Jamie Roberts. This documentary presents a tick-tock of the events of the day, complete with so much harrowing footage that it’s hard to watch (and hard to believe Roberts and executive producer Dan Reed were able to marshal). The imagery of destruction and assault is powerful on its own terms; it’s in building the story of the participants’ motives and actions that “Four Hours at the Capitol” falters, making what could have been a definitive document into a deeply flawed one.
To wit: Among the first interview subjects we meet is a self-identified “Proud Boy,” a member of the organization that wages political violence in support of far-right goals, including the reinstatement of President Trump. This individual, wearing a shirt with a conspiratorial slogan referring to the death of rioter Ashli Babbitt, describes “fighting between patriotic people and Capitol police” and notes, “When you really do believe a tyrannical government is basically taking over the country, you’re going to have some crazy stuff go down.”
One questions what this adds. It’s hardly a noteworthy insight that those that stormed the Capitol believed that finalizing the outcome of a free and fair election was “tyrannical”; broadcasting these claims, as well as conspiratorial imagery on a T-shirt, without any directorial intervention is a judgment call, and in my view, the wrong one. The continued lending of HBO’s megaphone to those who stormed the Capitol extends as far as an “activist filmmaker” who lists off a variety of QAnon-adjacent claims, and describes the scene inside the Capitol as “an interesting vibe. The people were cheerful.” Here, Roberts places trust in his viewer to detect the irony, placing the testimony in counterpoint to video of people milling about and underscoring it with eerie, ethereal music.
It’s hard to imagine the right way to treat footage like this: It is not Roberts’ responsibility, necessarily, to insert himself into the documentary and assert directly that this is inaccurate. And many viewers will understand that though what they’re seeing in the moment is not literally violent, the footage that comes later is undeniable. We see how close Congress came to facing a violent mob, Senators and Representatives donning gas masks, and the sheer manpower of the mob, constantly sending forward “fresh people” to face down an outmanned police force. In its structure and in the pain and emotion that Roberts elicits from interview subjects, “Four Hours” is a real achievement.
What’s most frustrating, then, is that studded throughout are denialist claims that serve no useful dramatic or informational point. We know that the events of the day are being minimized constantly, from living in the world. This documentary undercuts its genuinely startling element — the gathering and structuring of so much inside footage — with statements that are either purposefully dissembling or reflecting a deluded worldview. Both of these impulses will be intimately familiar to a viewer who watches the news; one who doesn’t might have benefited from a project that played things a little more straight, taking both sides of the story but using tactics more direct than ironic counterpoint to address the one that doesn’t have truth on its side.
What’s frustrating here is that the documentary so clearly rides a line. Some of its access to the right is genuinely informative, as in the case of U.S. Congressman Buddy Carter, a Georgia Republican who decries the events because “we were winning … we were winning the moral wars.” That’s not all the Republicans could have won on Jan. 6, if Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s reporting of a plan to throw out electors to ensure a Trump victory is to be believed. Regardless, the approving comparison Carter himself draws between the beginnings of the riot and his own objections to the election — “We gotta fight. That’s what I was doing, I was fighting for my people, for my voters,” he says — is a chilling view of just how close, in aim and in rhetorical style, insurrection and standard-issue 2020s politics are.
What makes depicting Carter’s statements different from a literal Proud Boy’s? Well, what Carter says is inherently newsworthy, as he’s an elected official; his perspective carries weight because of his inherent power to bring it about by force of law (whatever one might think about that). The insurrectionists’ perspective, in addition to being exactly what one would expect, gains power first by force and second by convincing others of its righteousness. And Roberts’ documentary hands them the mic and gives them the opportunity, doing too little to push back. As we’ve seen from the way the day is slipping from memory — with the man who did so little to call the carnage off for hours poised to run for President again in three years — there is a great seductiveness to the idea that Jan. 6 was an anomalous but ultimately minor event. What is dismaying about the representation of this point of view, not directly challenged, is that we ought to know better: If there’s a lesson of recent years, it’s that rhetoric, including and especially on television, has a troubling tendency to trump reality.
“Four Hours at the Capitol” airs Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.