The date of January 6th has quickly taken on an immortal meaning, and its significance will only grow as the United States goes through another election and approaches the second anniversary of the forceful invasion of the Capitol by armed protesters. Much of that day’s events played out on live television for horrified audiences, and it’s astonishing just how much of what happened was captured on video. Filmmakers Gédéon and Jules Naudet intersperse the considerable amount of available footage with intimate interviews with those who were present to unpack just how bad things really were.
January 6th begins with black-and-white footage advertising the glory of Washington, D.C., and it only takes a few minutes to get to 2021, when Trump supporters line the streets and gather to hear their president shepherd them to the Capitol to share their feelings on the certification of the electoral votes. From there, computer-generated diagrams show the layout of the Capitol and where the mob has reached in relation to the location of the members of Congress who are actively objecting to the counts in certain disputed states. That imagery serves to emphasize the stakes as the siege continues and those present reflect back on how they felt in filmed interviews.
This documentary contains video of nearly the entire process that day, edited together from many different cameras. Some comes from filmmakers and journalists who purport their independence and also participate willingly in the film as interview subjects, and some can be sourced to right-wing extremist sites (fair warning: don’t try typing in the URLs listed on shots; they’ll take you to “banned video” hubs that celebrate Alex Jones and other disturbing content). There is no sense of shame or concern that this will be used against them in a court of law, and the conversations that police officers recall having with the intruders indicate that they believe they are somehow upholding the law more effectively and purely than those wearing the uniforms and defending against an insurrection.
Hearing from members of Congress who ended up having to run to safety is especially unsettling and enlightening. It’s clear that those traipsing through the Capitol are there more to disrupt than to actually accomplish something concrete, as one confused insurrectionist misinterprets a sheet of paper with Ted Cruz’s name on it and believes that he was “going to sell us out all along” because he planned to object, not realizing that objecting is precisely what their mission is supposed to support. One Democrat shouts at Republicans across the room that they have caused this, while others express that those seeking to break the windows of the chamber don’t care whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. Troy Nehls, a Republican who continues to prop up disproven claims of election fraud yet surprisingly agreed to be interviewed for this film, recalls telling those who recognized him as being from Texas that he couldn’t support what they were doing because “this is a sacred place.”
What unfortunately echoes most from this thorough survey of the day’s events is how, despite the eventual restoration of order and the successful prevention of the breaching of the Congressional chambers, so many remain unconvinced of the damage of their actions. Watching Oklahoma Senator James Lankford deliver a sprawling speech about how he and others cannot trust elections as sounds of the approaching mob can be heard is unnerving, but the true lack of change can be seen when, finally safe from any potential harm, members of Congress continue to rise to deliver symbolic objections to state vote counts. They could easily have been targeted by the insurrectionists who didn’t know their names or faces, but now that they are safe, they are not willing to take any responsibility for the fervor they have helped to foster and feed.
There is a point in this 150-minute film where it begins to feel long, but that is in part because the day is still not over. Police officers express their relief that reinforcements have finally arrived and they are no longer defending essentially all on their own against a group of thousands with no respect for the rule of law. One cameraman from National Geographic describes how the mob, now cut off from access to the Capitol, then turned on him, alleging that he might be with Antifa. There is a true terror conveyed by so many of the interviewees, indicative of an event full of malicious and deadly intent that, had it gone as they had planned and not been stopped, would have been dominated by vicious carnage and bloodshed.
It is highly unlikely that those who would most benefit from seeing this film would ever consider doing so, an unfortunate reality that is even more disappointing given that it does manage to capture a relatively bipartisan perspective. Few Republicans offer their takes on that day, but the footage speaks for itself, providing a harrowing window into what happened with little ambiguity about the energy of the people who charged into a government building ready to take back their country by force. This documentary is insightful and educational, adding important commentary to an edited chain of video that really should but somehow doesn’t speak for itself.
January 6th will be available to stream on Discovery+ January 5, 2023.