Movies like Imperium always have difficulty finding a wide audience, largely because people often tend to actively avoid uncomfortable truths. The fact is that is you make a movie about Muslim terrorists – people who for many western audiences are part of an undifferentiated ‘them’ – they’ll watch it, but those same people will shy away from a movie about the realities of things such as white supremacism, because they don’t want to be confronted with the fact that as big a danger might come from those who are supposedly part of ‘us’.
In the film, Daniel Radcliffe is FBI Agent Nate Foster, who’s been working on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism until he’s pulled aside by Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), who wants him to go undercover into the white supremacist movement. The FBI knows that six canisters of radioactive material has gone missing, and their biggest clue is that a neo-Nazi radio host, Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts), appears to know more than he ought to about it.
Nate begins to be accepted by the white supremacists around the Washington DC area, discovering a more diverse array of people than he expected, from angry young men with impulse issues, to intellectual family men living outwardly respectable lives, to armed militias preparing for full-scale revolution. All of them however agree there needs to be a race war, that Jews control the world and that everyone from feminists to gays are trying to destroy white people. The deeper he goes, the more danger Nate faces, not to mention the fact that with various cells and organisations working separately, figuring out who’s up to what and who knows what proves incredibly difficult. That gets to the point where parts of the FBI begin wondering whether anything is going on at all.
Imperium is a strong film and sometimes a pretty disturbing one, taking you into a world that it successfully portrays as being just next door, but far from most people’s experience of the world – perhaps because they don’t want to look. Daniel Radcliffe is great, giving an intense performance that he really throws himself into. A lot of actors would want to ensure the audience is constantly reminded they’re different to the white supremacists around them, but Radcliffe doesn’t do that, instead helping show that despite how awful these people are, they’re not actually that far from the rest of us in many respects.
The film does almost come undone at some points by sticking rigidly to the beats of an FBI procedural, with certain plot points that feels a little clichéd and almost as if the film thinks it’s compulsory to include them in a movie about someone going undercover. It never fully finds the balance between trying to be a thriller and a realistic drama, but it doesn’t matter too much as the strength of what it’s talking about comes through, while the procedural elements are fairly entertaining in their own right.
It is also undoubtedly timely. A year ago it might have seemed a little over the top that such a diverse and organised white supremacist movement existed in the US – it’s normally much easier to present them as a few white trash nutjobs who wouldn’t have the brains to do anything of consequence – but as Trump’s run for presidency has shown, there are more of them than most of us would like to admit, and they’re now feeling more emboldened than they have in decades. As a result, they’re also far more dangerous.
Overall Verdict: Sometimes it gets a little too close to being a standard procedural, but thanks to a great performance from Daniel Radcliffe, the strength of its subject matter and an acceptance that the issues and people involved are often complex, it’s far stronger than it might otherwise have been.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac