HBO’s documentary Four Hours At The Capitol doesn’t present the events of January 6 as one-time explosion of collective madness. The interviews with the insurrectionists who attacked Congress are bracing in their sense of calm. No one raises their voice, and despite having months to reflect on their actions, no one expresses genuine regret. That’s what is most frightening, as the documentary makes clear that January 6 wasn’t just the end of a movement but the beginning of a dark chapter in American history.
Directed by Jamie Roberts (The Rise Of The Murdoch Dynasty), the documentary begins with Washington, D.C., Capitol police officer Michael Fanone saying, “January 6 started off pretty much like any other day.” This makes it sound like 9/11, when the attack on the World Trade Center caught Americans off-guard. However, the storm that erupted on January 6 had been brewing for months.
Trump first cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election before a single vote was cast, and when the race was officially called for President Joe Biden on November 7, Trump refused to concede. For the next two months, Trump cried fraud, with no evidence, and filed frivolous lawsuit upon frivolous lawsuit, with no grounds. He pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” votes for him and demanded that Republican governors not certify election results that he considered fraudulent for no reason other than he’d lost.
A sore loser parade was expected on January 6, when Congress met to officially certify Biden’s victory, but few imagined that the simple administrative task of certifying Biden’s win would instead prove a day of reckoning for the MAGA movement and a day of infamy for the U.S. itself.
Four Hours At The Capitol puts us inside the twisted minds of the insurrectionists who attacked the seat of government, but at no point are viewers compelled to sympathize with them. The filmmakers let the rioters speak for themselves while contrasting their words with footage of their shocking deeds. The interviews play out like conversations with members of a cult. These people exist in an alternate reality where Donald Trump isn’t a malignant narcissist whose fragile ego wouldn’t let him accept so public a defeat.
A deluded supporter compares Trump to Jesus Christ. He is their “savior,” even though he wouldn’t bother to spit on them if they were on fire. Someone suggests that Trump was “anointed by God” to serve as president. What’s horrifying is that their adoration remains undiminished. They are more than willing to embark on another crusade on Trump’s behalf.
Proud Boy member Bobby Pickles makes it clear that the mob headed to the Capitol on Trump’s instructions. This was not a spontaneous demonstration. The attack happened because Trump deliberately incited a mob during an unhinged speech where he repeated more lies about the election and encouraged his devoted audience to “fight like hell” or they “wouldn’t have a country anymore.”
The documentary features never-before-seen footage inside the Capitol on January 6. We’ve usually seen the mob as an enraged weapon aimed at democracy itself, but Four Hours At The Capitol also shows the rioters savoring the moment of their apparent conquest, like the psychotic droogs in A Clockwork Orange. One man lights up a joint to celebrate, and he offers spares to his fellow seditious travelers. It’s like they’re at a party while terrified women tremble in darkened offices just a few feet from them. A voice offscreen asks someone, “Why are you smoking weed in the Capitol?” and the response is sudden and revealing, “Because I can!”
Four Hours At The Capitol is most effective at shattering the complacency of anyone who still wants to dismiss Trump as the bombastic clown who appeared in Home Alone 2 or stuffed-crust pizza commercials. The documentary reinforces the power he still commands over a significant segment of the population. His opponents from both parties have dismissed him as a con man, but that misses the mark. Con men can be exposed and Trump’s supporters will never see that their emperor has no clothes. Worse, when Trump tells them his fancy robes were stolen, they believe him without question. Four Hours At The Capitol is a sober warning of what Trump’s supporters might do again, either in 2022 or 2024.
The interviews with the insurrectionists showcase the pride and perverse patriotism they feel about breaching the Capitol, and the documentary trusts viewers enough to let the their self-delusion speak for itself. Couy Griffin, one of the “cowboys for Trump,” insists you can’t prove the violent insurrectionists were Trump supporters—just because they were wearing Trump hats while storming the Capitol in his name.
Four Hours At The Capitol devotes significant time to the true victims on January 6, and the interview with a visibly traumatized Leah Han, an aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is especially compelling. It’s heartbreaking to watch Han hold back tears as she describes hiding with colleagues in an office, hearing the mob pound on the door and questioning if she’d leave the Capitol alive.
Forty to 50 officers fought 1,500 people for hours on January 6. It was exhausting and overwhelming, but they were determined not to lose the Capitol. This might make the subject of an uplifting movie starring Bradley Cooper some day, but Four Hours At The Capitol focuses instead on the harrowing reality. The mob has superior numbers and batters officers like rag dolls. Officer Daniel Hodges confesses that he feared the mob would drag him into the crowd and lynch him. While this was happening, the man who was still president of the United States watched the insurrection from the White House with reported delight. It wasn’t until 4:17 p.m. that he sent a wishy-washy message that still insisted the election was stolen, but called for the mob to go home.
Four Hours At The Capitol concludes with these tragic statistics: 140 officers were injured on January 6. Fanone specifically suffered a mild heart attack and traumatic brain injury. Officer Brian Sicknick, also a Trump supporter, was assaulted at the Capitol and died the next day. Four officers so far have died by suicide in the aftermath.
During the documentary’s final moments, Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern shares how he assumed that January 6 would be a 9/11-like event where Democrats and Republicans united as one (if you’re inclined to believe that’s what happened). Yet nine months later, the Republican Party remains fully in thrall to Trump and his lies.
Jimmy Kimmel described the events of January 6 as the Trump era’s “treason finale,” and the image of Donald Trump’s supporters storming the Capitol can feel like the cliffhanger moment in a badly written TV drama we can’t switch off. But after watching Four Hours At The Capitol, the January 6 attack feels more like a horror film, one that ends with the monster still at large.