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Your job is to stop terrorists but you can’t just sit on your hands and wait for them to spring up. You want to be proactive about it. So you find a small-fry, some local kook who shows terrorist-ish leanings but is too inept to be a serious threat to anyone. At least, not yet. You decide to give them a nudge in the wrong direction. You send uncover agents to meet them, encourage them, even fund them. You arm them with fake weapons and explosives and once they’ve done enough to score a decent conviction, you swoop in and arrest them. Then you claim you’ve stopped the next great threat to national security.
Catching terrorists before they become terrorists may sound like something from Minority Report but, unbelievably, this was a genuine tactic used by the FBI post-9/11. The FBI, an organisation dedicated to protecting the safety of Americans, actively cultivated threats to that very safety. If ever there was a perfect subject for a biting satirical farce, this is it.
Moses (Marchant Davis) lives in a small commune with his wife, daughter and a few friends. Together, they are the Star Of Six, a religious group with an ideological pick’n’mix, worshipping everyone from Allah to General Touissant to Black Santa Claus. What Moses lacks in intelligence, he makes up for in conviction. Every day, he preaches to his “army” about The Great Inversion, when the white Europeans ruling class will be overthrown and the oppressed will seize power.
“He has the threat level of a hotdog”, says FBI Agent Kendra (Anna Kendrick), who leads the sting operation against him. But just because he isn’t a threat doesn’t mean she won’t try and make him one. Kendra isn’t a bad person — she may be the closest thing the film has to a moral centre — but her ruthless ambition to succeed in the FBI’s male-dominated work environment means she’ll do whatever it takes to make a name for herself, even set up an innocent man.
Kendra has one of her informants pose as a Middle-eastern sheik and offer to sell guns to Moses. The plan is that the “good guys” will then swoop in and arrest him. But Moses proves more unpredictable than her usual targets, obliviously bumbling past all the traps she lays out for him. And so Kendra must go to increasingly extreme lengths to snare a man who is never as sinister as she needs him to be.
I’ve gone too long without mentioning the writer-director Chris Morris. Probably best known for his news parodies The Day Today and Brass Eye, Morris is a celebrated British satirist who likes to pop up every now and then to remind us why. His last film, Four Lions, was back in 2010 and followed a group of incompetent, would-be suicide bombers. As regards subject matter, Morris has a tendency to kick down doors others would fear to open.
While the film gets big laughs from its stranger-than-fiction farce, Morris never lets us forget the human cost of all this nonsense. The film opens by telling us that it is “based on a hundred true stories”, a statement that will surprise you at the beginning and enrage you by the end.
Nobody in the FBI ever questions the morality of what they’re doing — framing a man who is clearly mentally ill as a terrorist — but in their lying and scheming and contempt for the rule of law, they expose themselves as a greater threat to national security than a single terrorist could ever be. The doublethink used to justify this provides some delicious fodder for Morris. When the FBI Chief learns about Moses, he calls him a ‘lone wolf’. Someone corrects him, saying that there are actually four of them. The Chief nods. ‘So they’re a pack of lone wolves.’