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“You have six hours to prevent a civil war.”
With that ominous prompt, Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s documentary War Game gets underway. The movie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, shadows a training exercise in which veterans of the armed forces, intelligence services, and state and federal government play out the possibility of an organized attempt to disrupt the certification of the 2024 presidential election. Conducted on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 riots, in a mock-up of the White House situation room, the simulation confronts the sobering possibility that even after that object lesson in the fragile nature of our democracy, the nation may not be fully prepared for what comes next. As Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council official and Trump whistleblower, who helped design the exercise, explains, the defenders of democracy have learned the lessons of 2021—but so have the “democracy offenders,” the people hellbent on overturning the lawful government of the U.S.
The 2025 insurrection is instigated by a paramilitary group called the Order of Columbus, a loose amalgamation of the Oath Keepers and QAnon. It’s led by a fictional war hero based on Michael Flynn and conceived by Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq war veteran who now runs a nonprofit that keeps tabs on the extreme right. He shakes his head as he describes how many people still underestimate the imminent danger of American fascism—a movement that he could, under different circumstances, see himself joining—and he adopts a similar tone during the simulation as he moves his pieces around the board. The main new element in this hypothetical is that the Order of Columbus has factions within the U.S. military itself that are activated as it becomes clear that the incumbent president, played by former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, will be certified the victor over his right-wing opponent. Members of the D.C. National Guard turn their weapons on their comrades, and other members of the military follow suit across the states, leaving in question what exactly the commander in chief is in command of. The president and his allies are particularly slow to reckon with the infinite megaphone of social media, which the insurgents use as a means to rally their troops until, more than halfway through, someone in the situation room thinks to place a call to Mark Zuckerberg. (When the Transition Integrity Project, in summer 2020, gamed out possible disruptions to that year’s upcoming election, the establishment made a similar error, and corrected for it in later rounds.)
What’s most fascinating in War Game is the ongoing tension between the interventionist forces urging the president to take swift and decisive action and those counseling him to act more delicately, weakening the threat without risking an overt show of force that could add more fuel to the fire. The Order of Columbus isn’t trying just to overturn the election, but to create martyrs for the cause, proof that the incumbent is the tyrant it claims. Goldsmith points out that while the Jan. 6 attacks didn’t succeed in ousting Biden, they did achieve the critical goal of undermining faith in the electoral process, with a majority of Republicans either believing or suspecting that the election was illegitimate.
As the president’s senior adviser, former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp pushes the idea that the greatest danger is for the government to underreact to the threat: This is, after all, how military coups are made. In the control room, you can see Janessa Goldbeck, whose nonpartisan organization Vet Voice is responsible for staging the simulation, almost fighting the urge to egg Heitkamp on as the casualties mount, because she knows just how bad both this fictional situation and its real-world equivalent can get.
Bullock, however, remains a figure of almost Sorkinesque stoicism. (There are shots that suggest he could have been Martin Sheen’s stand-in on The West Wing.) The crisis spreads to the states, and as official communications become confused, it’s difficult to tell whether statehouses have already fallen to the insurgency. The simulation’s six-hour time frame, further compressed by Moss and Gerber into a 94-minute movie, underlines the terrifying sense of just how quickly the contagion can spread, and from how many directions at once. It’s like a tower defense game with the world’s highest stakes, trying to calculate not just where the threat is but where it will grow and at what speed. As the situation worsens, Bullock is urged to invoke the Insurrection Act, which allows the president to nationalize state forces and override the prohibition against using the military to enforce the law. (The act has certainly been invoked for less, including by George H.W. Bush during the Rodney King riots.) But he hesitates over the ramifications for both the short and long term. What better way to prove himself the despot the Order of Columbus calls him than by turning the country’s military against its own citizens? And in the event that his opponent, or someone like him, becomes president, what’s to stop them from citing Bullock’s example to invoke the Insurrection Act for their own fascistic purposes?
Two weeks before Sundance, Moss and Gerber hosted a screening of War Game in New York, followed by a discussion with several of its participants: Bullock, Heitkamp, and retired Gens. Wesley Clark and Linda Singh, who play the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chief of the National Guard Bureau, respectively. (The Sundance screening was accompanied by a virtually identical panel.) Clark forcefully pushed back against the idea that members of the U.S. military could be involved in any attempt to disrupt the lawful workings of government, citing the camaraderie his disparate unit showed under fire in Vietnam. But there is ample evidence of extremist elements in the military, which, Heitkamp pointed out, does not even screen recruits’ social media profiles for their political views. “I think the biggest threat is denial,” she said. “We have a problem that we’re not acknowledging.”
At times, War Game, which went into Sundance without theatrical distribution, feels like watching a slightly less absurdist version of Dr. Strangelove. The ending might be a tad happier, but the danger feels much more present. “The alarms are flashing red,” Goldbeck warns in the film. Although the simulation is rigorously realistic, it’s still hard even for some of the participants to act as if a full-blown civil war is within the realm of the possible, the way that cars drive straight into a jackknifed semi because the drivers’ brains reject the evidence of their own eyes—what they’re seeing couldn’t have happened, and so their minds decide it didn’t, right until they plow into the wreck. For all the threats we face, Gerber said at the screening, “the real enemy is a failure of imagination.” War Game forces us to imagine what we wish was impossible, so that we can keep it that way.