The January 6 Select Congressional Committee released its final report on December 22, 2022. The report is the culmination of the ten hearings the nation has witnessed on television from June through December at intervals. The hearings have had a dramatic impact on part of the nation. About seventeen to twenty million Americans watched the first three episodes and the viewer numbers remained respectable for the ensuing hearings, but given the gravity of the crimes being investigated, the viewing audience should have been much larger. As I look back at the full sequence of televised segments that ran from June through December and were two to three hours each (a total of twenty-three hours and forty-three minutes), I would call the televised hearings a major documentary film. And, it is a film that is finely directed and cinematically complex as it depicts the drama of a group of congressional legislators and their quest to disclose the truth about an unprecedented attack on the Constitution. Former U.S. federal judge and conservative J. Michael Luttig has called the former president’s “false and reckless insistence” that the election was stolen from him an “insidious crime and attack on American democracy.”[1] This ten-episode film, with its riveting layers and innovative dimensions, has a cinematic depth, complexity, and texture that brings us the story of an unprecedented, epic crime. Is this not one of the most important screen events in American history? The film has been shown on major TV networks—PBS, CNN, MSNBC on cable, and NBC, ABC, and CBS as well, at certain times. What is flagrantly noticeable is that Fox News—the most watched cable news station that plays to a conservative and right-wing base—has boycotted the film, and in doing so, one might say, has become an accomplice to the denial of the crime.

January 6: The Film, as I’ve come to call it, is an urgent story that needs to be watched by a broad spectrum of the nation, and in the form of a feature documentary film. And more so, because  Trump’s Big Lie, that the 2020 election was stolen from him, continues to corrupt and threaten American democracy. As all Big Lies are, this one is a gross misrepresentation of the facts for the purpose of political propaganda. Not only are far-right extremists supporting the Lie, but apparently seventy percent of Republicans and the majority of Republican representatives in Congress and the Senate have been endorsing the Lie in overt or surreptitious ways. Thus, in this moment, a different kind of film needs to be crafted from the nearly twenty-four hours that have been shown on TV. And this new film, in a compressed form, needs to reach viewers either in theaters or as a streamed film in episodes.

As a film, January 6 offers us a compelling nonfiction story and a rich cinematic text. First, the film brings us morally responsible Republican voices, including former Trump advisors and cabinet members. There are hours of the testimony from Trump’s team—some live in the public sessions and some recorded closed-door depositions that include his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner; White House counsel Pat Cipollone; White House lawyer Eric Hershman; former Attorney General William Barr; former Press Secretary Sarah Matthews; White House advisor Matthew Pottinger; and Cassidy Hutchinson, assistant to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, among others. There are Republicans who have put the Constitution and the foundations of American democracy above party fanaticism and spiteful bitterness. Those conservative voices have the greatest potential to reach the segments of the nation that are boycotting the hearings or angrily rebutting them. And, of course, the leadership of two Republican members of Congress on the Select Committee—Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—is exemplary.

January 6 is a complex text. The documentary is a film of layering; both diachronic and synchronic as it moves from present to past in the meticulously edited cuts that director James Goldston, former president of ABC News, has choreographed. Shaped by the testimony of an extraordinary cast of characters who are either live in the chamber or appear on video on the big screen that hangs on the chamber’s high wall, the film is anchored by footage of the insurrection enacted by a mob of armed Trump supporters. That event remains at the center of the film whether it looms off stage or is before us in vivid color. We see Trump at a podium engineering a rally near the White House as he promotes the Big Lie to a fanatical base whom he has summoned from around the country. We watch him exhort them to go to the Capitol to stop the ratification of the election of Joseph R. Biden. And, as everyone acknowledging the facts of the election knows, Biden’s victory was decisive: 306 to 232 electoral votes with a margin of more than seven million popular votes. Biden’s victory was confirmed in what was the most scrupulously vetted election in American history, and this included the acknowledgment of Trump’s own cyber security chief Christopher Krebs (who was subsequently fired for affirming the facts about the election results), as well as by a Supreme Court that refused to intercede on Trump’s behalf, the electoral college in all fifty states, and the sixty law suits that ruled against Trump’s complaints.

The scenes of the mob and the violence remain shocking every time we see them; they jolt us back to that day and those hours. The film shows us in graphic depth men and women with weapons breaking the windows of the Rotunda, American democracy’s sacred space and symbol. It is a scene of terrorists, and they are not from a foreign country. We watch American citizens calling for the death of Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence because he refused to cave to Trump’s request to overturn the election results. “Death to Mike Pence” they chant. A man wearing antler horns and an animal pelt headdress, body painted, looking like a character in a Hollywood film, is shouting obscenities as he bounds around the halls and chamber of the Capitol. A mob of men and women with American flags in hand or on t-shirts (the irony is lost on them), carrying guns, smashing windows and walls and doors, pummeling the police and security forces with their weapons, shouting “Kill Pelosi,” “Death to Pence,” and more. Watching it makes one feel that the absurd has become real and the real has become absurd. As police officer Caroline Edwards, who was knocked unconscious by the mob that day, says in the first episode of the film: It was “a war scene; people were sliding in each other’s blood. It was carnage. It was chaos.”[2] Much of this footage is from the documentary film maker Nick Quested, who happened to be filming the Proud Boys that day as part of another project, and this reminds us of how important authentic witness footage is.

January 6: The Film is built around a single story with a narrative arc. There are main characters and dramatic conflicts. Each episode has a theme and a structure and a denouement, and the narrative even embodies some dimensions of the traditional epic. In the epic poem or story the central hero is a brave and resolute figure who must fight against extraordinary obstacles in an effort to save or heal a society or nation. Take Odysseus in The Odyssey or Beowolf in Beowolf, both heroes who have to vanquish forces of chaos and malignancy in order to save their respective communities.  The central event propelling this American epic is the attempted coup d’état by defeated President Donald Trump who orchestrated an insurrection by a mob of citizens whom he summoned to Washington. Perhaps only the secession of the Southern states in 1861 is a more flagrant act of treason against the nation. In this story, Trump, the antagonist, is the force of chaos and destruction, a metaphorical dragon who has to be vanquished, like Grendel in Beowulf or the usurping suitors in The Odyssey. Trump’s minions—Rudy Giuliani, Roger Stone, Steve Bannon and others—are agents of Trump’s destruction, against whom the Select Committee must also struggle to bring to justice in their effort to save American democracy.

In this epic, we don’t have a single romantic hero, but a committee of legislators who work methodically through a democratic process—with adherence to fact-based evidence and meticulous attention to detail—as they seek to disclose the truth about the assault on the Capitol and Trump’s role in it. They are a brave and determined group, some of whom, including Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, sacrificed their political careers for the pursuit of truth and justice. The seven Democrats include the Chair Bennie Thompson, Zoe Lofgren, Adam Schiff, Pete Aguilar, Stephanie Murphy, Jamie Raskin, and Elaine Luria, all of whom took on a huge task in addition to their legislative responsibilities in order to defend democracy and the bedrock principle that democracy must be grounded by free and fair elections and a peaceful transition to power. As an epic, this story brings us to the stark realization that we are, as a nation, facing a foundation-shaking moment.

The Select Committee of congresswomen and men share some qualities with the epic hero. They are indefatigable truth seekers who are trying to save the nation as they take on the various obstacles of election denialism, an obstreperous and unprincipled Republican Party locked in a combination of fear of the cult leader Trump and a spiteful kind of political opportunism. James Goldston has edited January 6 in a compellingly clipped and minimalist way. We hear the voices of the Select Committee speaking throughout in precise and restrained language that is often eloquent. They never cave to melodrama or grandstanding or exhibitionism, and they are conducting their epic battle on the sacred American grounds that the insurrections defiled.

In a formal sense, Goldston has made a film in large part out of testimony, out of hundreds or thousands hours of testimony. The major actors include both the Select Committee members and a broad range of interviewees: from the Trump administration witnesses noted above to testifiers that include former Proud Boys, state officials (some of whom were pressured by Trump to overturn the election results), policemen and -women who were brutally injured by the insurrectionists, and federal officials.

Goldston has used a range of extraordinary images and texts, including audio tapes, depositions, emails, memos, social media posts, text messages, and video footage. We even see discarded outtakes of Trump rehearsing a speech he’s going to make to the nation, in which we get to be inside the White House as he stumbles over his confusion and rage and incriminates himself in yet another way by even walking back a statement he had made earlier in rehearsal about the election being resolved. We also hear a phone call in which Trump is asking the Secretary of State in Georgia to come up with fake votes to overturn that state’s legitimate vote count.

Then there is that incomparable part of the mis en scene that overlays the formal setting of the chamber with the committee members and the interviewees. A huge movie screen hangs on a wall from the chamber’s high ceiling. It hangs over the federal architecture of the room with its Ionic pilasters and dental molding and the display of American and Congressional flags. On that big screen we watch an array of images: footage of the mob, footage of Trump, testimony given by Trump staff and cabinet, emails, text messages, audio tapes, and so on. The big screen (inside our own television screen) is the lens of mediation, and it is the movie within the movie—you might call a meta-reality—because when we view the big screen we enter time and refocus on the event. The big screen keeps shifting the mis en scene, and when the image ends we refocus our attention back to the chamber and on the Congressional Committee. We move back and forth from screen to live action. Thus, what’s on the TV screen is ever moving, mosaic pieces in the bigger narrative: a Facebook posting, an email, a written memo, a video of an interview with former Attorney General William Barr, an audio recording of a phone call of a Trump staffer, footage of the testimony from those, who were inside the Trump White House and world, from daughter Ivanka to Attorney General Bill Barr to Casey Hutchinson and many more. In this way, the film engages its viewers in a dramatic action. We move from viewing  what’s happening on the big screen to the drama in the chamber in ways that create time and space shifts between the historic event, the interviews done months earlier for the hearings, and present action in the chamber.

The story that emerges is shattering. We come away from the film having seen President Trump exhorting his supporters to Washington on the false pretense that the election was stolen. We hear from his close advisors including Attorney General Barr, his legal staff, and even his daughter that his obsession with the so called “steal” is wrong, delusional, and “bullshit,” as Attorney General Barr puts it. We have seen Trump implicate himself in phone calls in which he asks the Attorney General in Georgia to manufacture eleven thousand votes for him. We have seen in vivid documentary footage the result of Trump’s plan of sabotage: a mob of Americans from around the country desecrating the halls of government, killing and injuring police, and chanting “Kill Mike Pence, kill Nancy Pelosi.” We have seen with clear sight the atrocity of terrorism fomented by an unhinged President who would destroy democracy in his desperate lust for power.

In the end, the committee concluded its findings with four criminal referrals, recommendations to the Department of Justice about former President Donald Trump. These criminal referrals can be summarized as: 1) obstruction of an official proceeding, for obstructing the January 6 count of the electoral votes by Congress; 2) conspiracy to defraud the United States that includes the fabrication and promotion of “the Big Lie” that the election was fraudulently stolen from Trump, and the further lie that former Vice President Pence could himself stop the electoral account; 3) conspiracy to make false statements that entailed the scheme to try to put false elector slates on the board in order to overturn the actual electors for each state; 4) assisting and aiding or comforting an insurrection. In short, the Committee asserts that there is clear evidence to prosecute and convict the former President on these criminal charges. Such charges against a President are unprecedented in American history.

The virulent propagandists and “Re”ubli’an mercenaries,” as Judge Luttig calls the irrational segment of the Republican Party, are full of passionate venom, and there seems to be no shame and no moral compass in the larger Party either. Nor is there any shame or ethics at Fox News where it has been revealed in the evidence produced by the Dominion voting machine lawsuit against Fox that program hosts Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and others acknowledged fully in their emails to each other that Biden had won the election (Carlson even referred to Trump as a “demonic force”). But, they quickly decided to lie to their audience and support Trump’s baseless allegations for profit and careerism. Not only the hosts but the upper echelons of Fox News are implicated, including owner Rupert Murdoch, who acknowledged during the recent trial proceedings that he knew Biden won the election, but allowed his show hosts to keep feeding their rabid conservative audiences Trump’s lies to appease them and keep Fox’s ratings and profits strong in the face of other conservative media competition like Newsmax.

Recently House Speaker Kevin McCarthy was pressured by the MAGA segment of his party to release the forty-four thousand hours of January 6 footage to the conspiracy theory purveyor at Fox News, Tucker Carlson. And, quickly Carlson has assembled a phony set of diced up images about the insurrection by cherry picking from the forty-one thousand hours of footage a few clips in his effort to sell more lies to his audience, to engage in an act of fascist-like political propaganda: the denial and rewriting of history. This is something that corrupt, authoritarian regimes and movements do. The Nazis rewriting the history of World War I. Putin rewriting the history of Ukraine. American Confederates rewriting the history of the Civil War, and so on. The final stage of the crime, as psychiatrist Judith Herman notes, is to deny the crime. [3] As scholars of genocide and human rights crimes assert: denialism is the desperate strategy of the perpetrators who seek to demonize the victims in order rehabilitate themselves. For Carlson to be on television trying to create a counterfeit narrative of the most heinous political crime committed against American democracy in modern history encourages more political violence, raises profound moral questions about Fox News, and rings big alarm bells to the rest of the nation. How much assault on democracy can the nation endure?

Of course, it is significant that The January 6 Report (752 pages) was published in December and became an instant New York Times best seller. Yet, while it is a vital record of witness to the crime, its reach is limited because it appeals only to a serious reading audience. Frontline’s two-hour film “January 6: Two Years Later,” about the insurrection is also important, but again, Frontline, a PBS platform, reaches a small audience. January 6: The Film is an essential text of witness and it is vital to the health of the nation. Even though most election deniers lost to Democrats in the November 2022 midterm elections, Trump’s Big Lie campaign, which strives to destroy the democratic foundation of free and fair elections and the peaceful transition of power, has been injected like a poison in the nation’s bloodstream. And the nation needs to expel the poison in order to return to law, order, democratic commitments. There have been almost one thousand Americans arrested by the Department of Justice in conjunction with the January 6 Insurrection, and nearly three hundred people already have stood trial and have been sentenced to prison for crimes of sedition. Yet, fanatics like Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green are now referring to these people  as “prisoners of political war.” If such rhetoric can be spewed by a legislator then we are, as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has put it, “losing reality.”[4] “January 6 The Film” can help us keep a hold on reality.

A new January 6 film has the potential to engage a wide and popular audience, and it can play a significant role in bringing Americans to a moral realization about what has happened to their nation. It is a good time for the director James Goldston, with the support of the January 6 Congressional Select Committee, to make a shorter version of the almost twenty-four-hour documentary we have seen on television. Such a film might be a three hour version, for a more traditional exhibition at theaters and on television, or it could be a film of five seventy-five minute episodes streamed on a platform that Americans could watch in their homes. In either form January 6: The Film  needs wider distribution. It could help stave off the next attempted coup. It will help save our democracy.

1. J. Michael Luttig, “Democracy on the Knife’s Edge,” The Bulwark, June 16, 2022.
3. Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: the aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror, Basic Books, New York, New York, 2022 edition,  10-12.
4. See Robert Jay Lifton, Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry, New York, The New Press, 2019.

Peter Balakian

Peter is the author of eight books of poems including Ozone Journal, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and the recently published No Sign (2022). His memoir Black Dog of Fate won the PEN/Albrand Award; and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response was a New York Times Best Seller. He is Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English at Colgate University.

Share This