Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s War Game documents a nifty six-hour exercise in roleplay, commencing on the anniversary of the January 6 United States Capitol attack. Put on by the Vet Voice Foundation in 2023, this bit of roleplay included U.S. officials in both defense and intelligence acting out their response to a fabricated but feasible coup attempt supported by the active military. It’s a stark, scary scenario succinctly laid out by Moss and Gerber, with aide from Janessa Goldbeck, CEO of Vet Voice. The results of the planned practice aren’t very reassuring.
Steve Bullock (former governor of Montana) plays “the President” here, informed by his team (including Senator Heidi Heitkamp, General [Ret.] Wesley Clark, among others) of a developing situation wherein a potential organized revolt is activating all across the nation. Each side is represented in the action, with veterans Kristofer Goldsmith and Chris Jones playing leaders of the fictional “Order of Columbus,” an extremist group leading the treasonous mission. They carry out reconnaissance of the National Mall and hire an actor to play the mouthpiece of their order. As the coup attempt carries out, Goldsmith and Jones and their cronies attempt to stay on task and anticipate the reaction of the State. Meanwhile, we cut to the Vet Voice control room where Goldbeck and her team throw curveballs into the action.
A lot of this run-through leans on the potential invocation of the Insurrection Act, which “authorizes the president to deploy military forces inside the United States to suppress rebellion or domestic violence or to enforce the law in certain situations.” War Game is edited like a political thriller, even employing fictional news-desk updates to deliver exposition within the context of the simulation. There’s an overwrought, pounding score as well. Its pace is brisk and effective, though there is a pronounced lack of drama to the proceedings.
Let’s unpack that last sentence. The presumed scheme at play is plenty dramatic and, frankly, not remotely far-fetched. As we approach the 2024 presidential election, some version of what Moss and Gerber are documenting here may very well occur. After all, our real world does have groups (e.g. the Oath Keepers) who appear hellbent on dismantling our democracy. The pronounced lack of drama in War Game comes down to execution. Though the premise is interesting and results are intriguing (and alarming), the players are not quite up to the challenge. The execution is far less believable than the set-up. This criticism may seem less-important than the mere existence of a film that games out a very scary potential political reality. Who cares if the non-actor politicians aren’t good at selling the scene?
Well, I care. It’s largely unconvincing. War Game feels stuck between showing us how our leaders would handle this scary coup attempt and making an entertaining movie about it. The bombastic score and cutaways to silly fake news anchors somewhat betray the members of government playing out their options via cues from Vet Voice. And as much as Goldsmith and Jones’ passion and patriotism shine through, the “Order of Columbus” feels similarly stuck between play-acting and stark verisimilitude. This messy combination of scenes and tones mix with a decidedly unsure conclusion to produce an incomplete, worrying result. If this is the plan, we’re in some trouble.
War Game premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.