John Milius made the conservative action-movie favorite Red Dawn. Released in 1984, it’s famous for Harry Dean Stanton’s patriarch, imprisoned during a Soviet takeover of America, shouting to his sons, “Avenge me!” But Milius’s daughter Amanda Milius may have outshone her father with her documentary The Plot Against the President, which details a real-life government coup attempt with less hysteria than Red Dawn — yet it’s scarier.
Amanda Milius lays out the Russia-collusion hoax that was a pretext for the involvement of intelligence officials with the newly installed Trump administration in 2017. This cool-headed doc differs in tone from the work of her father, who was considered a macho hawk during the Vietnam ’70s but was admired by his Movie Brat peers, from Spielberg and Coppola to Walter Hill. John Milius became legendary among them because he was the one with the most apparent political conviction who discerned the moral structures in Hollywood narratives; he distilled storytelling to depict heroism and moral courage in such films as Jeremiah Johnson, The Wind and the Lion, Conan the Barbarian, 1941, Apocalypse Now, Geronimo: An American Legend, Red Dawn, Rough Riders, and his definitive film, the semi-autobiographical surfer movie Big Wednesday (a clear influence on Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break). That Amanda Milius seems to have inherited that perspective is apparent in the way her documentary presents recent political circumstances as “The Plot.”
She casts character and behavior in clear moral terms (the Swamp versus the Patriots) rather than relying on conventional political rhetoric. Modern rhetoric has been corrupted, as evinced in the compromised journalism that facilitated the intelligence agents who acted against Trump’s incoming administration. Milius’s point? Life and politics are matters of character — acts of conviction, not power. Only those who courageously uphold constitutional principles can be trusted or honored. Of all the rotten behavior reported in her doc, the ugliest is Adam Schiff’s wheedling, dishonest antagonisms, but the most reprehensible comes early: when Obama repeats Reagan’s inauguration phrase “one of the hallmarks of a true democracy,” though all the president’s men and women had for months been in obstruction-coup mode, betraying the “peaceful transfer of power” promise and destroying the order of things.
But The Plot Against the President isn’t a doc cry for vengeance. Instead, it’s a movie equivalent of the Gadsden flag’s “Don’t Tread on Me” sentiment. It lines up House Intelligence Committee member Devin Nunes, his assistants Kash Patel and Jack Langer, and politicians Richard Grenell, K. T. McFarland, and Lee Zeldin, who opposed the Beltway treachery. Milius features interviews with conservative political commentators from John Solomon, Sebastian Gorka, Edward Luttwak, Tom Fitton, Jack Posobiec, Michael Anton, Raheem Kassam, and Lee Smith (Smith wrote the nonfiction exposé this film is based on).
A brief clip shows a disingenuous Nancy Pelosi enabling the coup attempt by endorsing the Russia hoax as “a desecration of our democracy not seen since Watergate,” which sets up the Left media’s go-to myth — their cry of “avenge me!” Although Milius never returns to Nancy Pelosi’s subversive doings, this telling moment reminded me that another scion-turned-filmmaker, Nancy’s daughter Alexandra Pelosi, had in 2002 made Journeys with George, a seemingly bipartisan doc that made the class affinity among cross-the-aisle politicians suspicious. Amanda Milius goes deeper, revealing almost Shakespearean complexity of behavior.
Milius concentrates on conservative patriots, yet her colloquy of all those involved in creating or fighting the coup highlights the varied countenances, plus their camera-ready expressions, that reveal an unexpectedly broad, adversarial America. The calm, uninflected presentation of the faces in this nightmare scenario looks past the usual suspects that the mainstream media favors — Adam Schiff, James Comey, John Brennan, James Clapper, Andrew McCabe, and Peter Strzok, who all regularly appear on CNN and MSNBC as Beltway stars.
This is the white-collar world of political wonks, all operating in the same bureaucratic environment. Some give a new, home-grown definition to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” — but from the perspective of freedom fighters who realize that their wrongdoing opponents are indifferent to the consequences of crime. Milius may be steeped in movie lore, but she’s smart enough to avoid predictable Kafkaesque hysteria — we’re past that now — for more precise, All-American alarm. She knows that conspiracy is real. Plus, she is unafraid of knee-jerk “conspiracy theory” media attacks and therefore captures how this conspiracy metastasized: An early scene captures the Capitol building’s upside-down reflection in the Potomac.
That image is so resonant, so troubling, that a greater probe seems needed. This subject calls for an American version of The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls’s 251-minute WWII French Occupation epic), but Milius condenses it into 90 minutes. Her plot moves breathlessly like Costa-Gavras’s Z and the parade of officials and citizen types is similar, but she can only scratch the surface of the moral challenge to democracy that occurred.
When Nunes, Patel, Gorka, Solomon, Posobiec, and others point out the media mendacity that has perpetrated the hoax, their heroic invective is worthy of the best crusading political spectacles ever filmed. The Plot Against the President doesn’t end with triumph and victory like Costa-Gavras’s rousing Z. Neither does it end with vengeance like Red Dawn. Fact is, Milius has made a cliffhanger — but with an informative explanation.