Arlington Road

How extensive is terrorism inside the United States? The film Arlington Road, directed by Mark Pellington, poses this question through the words of Michael Faraday (played by Jeff Bridges), a widowed Professor of George Washington University, who lectures to students that most political assassinations and bombings are pinned to a single person even though logic suggests otherwise. He says that the government feeds the “lone madman” theory to the press because most Americans want to feel safe after a terrorist incident, and this preposterous lie serves to calm public fear. Faraday notes that the original American revolutionaries were in fact anti-British terrorists, and thus that terrorism is part of the American political tradition. Faraday also asks why skinhead and other right-wing groups now flourish in an era of unparalleled prosperity, and why so many groups are stockpiling weapons to retaliate against the U.S. federal government, and why voter turnout is so low? Having raised profound questions that might provoke us to ask what really happened during such celebrated events as the Ruby Ridge massacre, the storming of Waco (as in the 1997 New Yorker documentary Waco: Terms of Engagement), and the like (President Kennedy’s assassination perhaps?), the film downshifts to consider one particular nest of terrorism, namely, the house in Arlington, Virginia, across the road from Faraday. Similar to The Stranger (1946), where a former Nazi moves into a small town, in Arlington Road structural engineer Oliver Lang (played by Tim Robbins) has just moved to the same block as Faraday, who gradually becomes suspicious that Lang is a terrorist. Lang, in turn, realizes that Faraday is tracking down his past, so he sets up Faraday to play a role in an elaborate plot in order to deliver explosives to blow up the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington. Although Faraday, during a class field trip, demonstrates the FBI’s incompetence in a situation that curiously resembles Ruby Ridge, where his wife died as an FBI agent, he nevertheless confides his suspicions about Lang to FBI agent Whit Carver (played by Robert Gossett). Carver, in turn, ignores Faraday’s warnings and then unexpected silence when Faraday’s son Grant (played by Spencer Treat Clark) is kidnapped by Lang, a nerd who is able to physically overpower an otherwise macho professor who gets emotional and even weeps in the film. The savvy professor, in short, is maneuvered to become a naïve patsy, the lone madman responsible for the latest terrorist bombing. Although most filmviewers will not believe that a clever professor could so easily crack up and fall into such an extraordinary trap, the biggest disappointment of the film is that there are no informational titles at the end, telling us for example about the so-called Patriot movement. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, some 523 militias and other right-wing terrorist groups in all fifty states are absolutely determined to cause trouble in the year 2000. Starting out as an exposé of a serious problem, the film ends with the hero of the film acting like a fool. MH