Reel Reviews | War Game (Sundance ’24)

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

Inspired by actual events, a worst-case disaster scenario is played out with former heads of state and military and filmed in War Game.

On January 6, 2023, a bipartisan group of current and former U.S. defense, intelligence, and elected policymakers spanning five presidential administrations participated in an unscripted role-play exercise in which they confronted a political coup backed by rogue members of the U.S. military, in the wake of a contested presidential election.  The role play was filmed.

Award-winning filmmakers Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber seized a unique opportunity to bring audiences tableside to a simulation that dramatically escalates the threat posed by January 6, 2021.

Jesse Moss’ films include Boys State (2020 Sundance U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize) for Apple and A24; The Overnighters (2014 Sundance Special Jury Prize Documentary) for Drafthouse and Netflix; and, recently, The Mission for National Geographic. For Netflix, he directed The Family, a five-part series, and “Payday,” an episode of the series Dirty Money.

Tony Gerber, an Emmy and PGA Award–winning filmmaker, has directed over a dozen films for National Geographic, including Kingdom of the White Wolf, a series shot in the Arctic. His feature docs include Full Battle Rattle with Jesse Moss and The Notorious Mr. Bout (2014 Sundance Film Festival). He produced Jane and the Oscar-shortlisted Takeover.

With the grip of a taut political thriller, War Game posits active-duty military breaking ranks to join an insurrection that soon spreads to other state capitals, yielding a chilling moment when it’s unclear whether the president fully commands the armed forces.  If the premise seems familiar, it is because it is meant to be familiar.  It is no secret that everything about this simulation is based upon the events of January 6, 2021, including the date of the role-play’s occurrence.  Yet this simulation goes into the worst-case scenario, what if the nation joined in on the events? 

The simulation’s outcome hinges on several inflection points, from the government’s capacity to counter the disinformation that’s effectively spread by the insurgent side to the potential invocation of the Insurrection Act (i.e., the very last resort). While the exercise served to stress test our institutions, the film is a critical wake-up call, underscoring the urgent need for bipartisanship in safeguarding American democracy.

Therein lies the underlying theme of the movie.  While the participants engaged in the simulation are from both parties and varying parts of government and military service, it is clear that they all are working together for the good of the country.  They all believe and trust that the system will work effectively and that they must be a part of that system.  In this world of deepening political separation and lack of cooperation, there is a great deal of optimism that comes from seeing this.  However, the warning is that the nation must elect people who believe in that process.  Unlike real events, the simulation failed to illustrate what the outcome would be if the insurrection was in the room.

War Game is a political thriller of grave importance.  The idea is to instill confidence in the government, its officials, and its checks and balances but the real and softly spoken commentary is made to the nation to have confidence in its election process and its outcomes. 

Grade:  B-