‘War Game’ doc: What if Jan. 6 happened again, only much, much worse? - The Washington Post
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What if Jan. 6 happened again, only much, much worse?

In a new Sundance documentary, 'War Game,’ politicians and military leaders simulate another contested election, in January 2025, and take it to the extreme

In a hypothetical war game, President John Hotham (played by former Montana governor Steve Bullock, seated far right in the back) and his advisers confront an insurrection involving active-duty military on Jan. 6, 2025, as seen in “War Game,” directed by Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber. (Wolfgang Held)
6 min

PARK CITY, Utah — On-screen, we are inside the car as two bearded White men, their faces mainly obscured, drive by the U.S. Capitol, using long-lens cameras to photograph the armed guards.

“Trunk checks, we’re not going to drive s--- in there,” says one man.

The other spots an area he thinks might be good for a media op. “This is where we’re going to want to see U.S. troops gunning down patriotic Americans,” he says.

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In “War Game,” a new documentary from Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber, these men are members of the Order of Columbus, an extremely religious, paramilitary organization that refuses to accept the results of a contested presidential election. This is not real. It’s part of an unscripted, real-time “war game” simulation being conducted by a nonpartisan veterans group called Vet Voice Foundation — inspired by a Washington Post op-ed from three retired generals who warned that the government needed to start preparing for another, even more deadly insurrection in the wake of the 2024 election.

On Jan. 6, 2023, two years after the Capitol riot, a nonpartisan group of military leaders and government officials spanning five presidential administrations gathered in a conference room at the downtown Marriot in Washington. There, they had created a full-scale mock-up of the White House Situation Room, to game out an election certification in January 2025, in which a sitting president has narrowly won, but his charismatic, far-right challenger has claimed to his followers that he is the only rightful leader.

“Players” included former Montana governor Steve Bullock (in the role of President Hotham), former senator Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota (senior adviser to the president), former senator Doug Jones from Alabama (attorney general), retired general Wesley Clark (chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff), and former Army secretary Louis Caldera (secretary of defense), plus CIA and FBI agents, a Secret Service officer and high-ranking officials in the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.

For this simulated repeat of 2021, the stakes are raised. The D.C. National Guard has been compromised, and religious extremists have been actively recruiting for years within the military, creating a “splinter cell” of rogue members who seek to overthrow the U.S. government and install the election’s “true” winner, failed candidate Gov. Robert Strickland (actor Chris Coffey). They have just six hours to reconvene Congress amid an invasion of the Capitol to certify the election, preserve democracy and avert a civil war.

Moss and Gerber film it like a thriller.

The movie takes viewers inside the three branches of the simulation, showcasing the intense decision-making techniques of people who’ve actually been read-in on some of the gravest moments in our country’s recent history. White Cell are the game masters dropping elements of chaos into the mix, starting with reports that there is open fire on the National Mall amid 10,000 protesters descending on the Capitol. (Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council officer who testified against the president in Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, is in their ranks.) Blue Cell are the “good guys” in the Situation Room. And Red Cell are the insurrectionists, spreading misinformation, formulating attacks and sending out commands to their followers.

At the center is a president who knows that this moment is about to define his second term in office, if he does indeed get one. “If you overreact, it’ll haunt your presidency,” says one adviser, while Heitkamp shoots back, “I think the idea that you can overreact to this is not valid.” She wants the president to shut down bridges and tunnels into D.C., at the very least. At every point, she wants him to be bolder, to make more moves to show the pub

lic he’s in control. If this movie has a star, it’s her.

But soon, the chaos is spreading. Violent crowds in six state capitols. A hostage situation and a missing governor in Phoenix. And on the table, pulsating like the One Ring to Rule Them All, is the Insurrection Act, “the nuclear option” as one White Cell member declares it, which allows the president to deploy the military domestically, essentially declaring war against his own people.

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After the screening, game producer Janessa Goldbeck, of Vet Voice Foundation, said that finding participants had not been easy: “Lots of folks turned down this opportunity to appear on camera in a completely unknown situation.” They had worked hard to fill the simulation with people of varied political persuasions. (The former politicians are Democrats, but many of the military and law enforcement players at one time leaned right.)

As Bullock explained, the players had only gotten five pages of briefing, so they were mostly winging it, but he had been through something like this before. Folks in Montana aren’t fond of big government. Nearly 30 years ago, the state was the site of the longest armed standoff in FBI history, when federal agents faced off for 81 days against the anti-government, white supremacist Christian Patriot militia known as the Freemen, who believed the highest level of authority was a sheriff. “Fifteen years ago, when I was attorney general, the Oath Keepers were recruiting my state police,” Bullock said.

Chris Jones, a Marine Corps veteran who was a Red Cell operative in the simulation, spends his time investigating and infiltrating far-right groups. One major blind spot, he said, is being reactive rather than proactive; in this case, President Hotham found out about the Order of Columbus as they were taking the Capitol. “Many things had to be ignored, which is very much what happened on Jan. 6. A lot of people were ignoring what’s happening in rural counties around the country,” he said.

Watching it back, said Heitkamp, “I didn’t realize I came into it that hot. And I realized that when I saw those images in the beginning, it just triggered me. It was almost like a post-traumatic response, like, ‘This is happening again.’” Despite Congress seemingly unified in condemning the Jan 6. insurrection, Heitkamp said, “Now we have the third-highest-ranking member of the majority in the House calling people who did that ‘hostages.’” (Rep. Elise Stefanik [R-N.Y.] faced censure for repeating Trump’s language, saying that insurrectionists who’ve since been jailed are not prisoners but political “hostages.”)

“I think one of the reasons I wanted to participate in this is I think there is daily gaslighting [about what happened on Jan. 6],” she added.

The filmmakers had rushed to finish the film in time for a Sundance debut because they want it to come out in an election year. They’re now searching for a distributor who will push it out, hopefully, in the first quarter of the year — and with a theatrical release — so audiences can have the conversations that it provokes. As Gerber tried to leave the theater, a line of more than a dozen people came up to him to ask more questions. “See,” he said, “this is urgent. People want to continue talking about it.”