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“War Game” Examines the Real Possibility of Another Insurrection in the U.S.

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 23: (L–R) Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “War Game” premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 23, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Lucy Spicer

In December of 2021, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by three retired generals who posited that another coup like the one on January 6 could take place after the 2024 presidential election — and this, time it could succeed. 

The op-ed suggests several steps that should be taken in order to prevent an insurrection. One of those suggestions is that the Department of Defense should war-game another post-election coup in order to identify weak spots. On January 6, 2023, the nonpartisan nonprofit Vet Voice Foundation conducted such an exercise, which Sundance alums Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber capture with all the intensity of a political thriller in their new film War Game, premiering January 23 at Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, Utah, as part of the Special Screenings section of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. 

The scenario: President John Hotham (played by former governor of Montana Steve Bullock) has just been reelected, and his opponent, the extreme Gov. Robert Strickland (played by actor Chris Coffey), is contesting the results. Strickland calls for an uprising among his followers, including those who are active duty members of the U.S. military. The president-elect and his Cabinet have six hours to ensure that Congress certifies the results of the election.

“The most important consideration was that the role-players themselves were people who had sat in these seats before, or had sat in very close seats to them, so they could operate in the way you see in the film,” says Janessa Goldbleck, Marine Corps veteran and CEO of Vet Voice Foundation, at the film’s post-premiere Q&A. “Sometimes I find myself watching it thinking, ‘Did we script this?’ Because they seem like they’re acting, but they’re not. They’re being themselves, they’re using their decades of experience to inform their decision-making.” 

Among the role-players in the situation room are former senator Heidi Heitkamp (senior advisor to the president), former Army secretary Louis Caldera (secretary of defense), retired Maj. Gen. Linda Singh (chief of the National Guard Bureau), and many others, who together bring many years of expertise to this unscripted exercise.

Though the film keeps us aware that we’re watching a fictional scenario, the tension and the stakes feel real. Part of that is due to the cinematic way in which the project was shot and edited, but the sense of urgency largely comes from the role-players themselves, who approach the situation with utmost seriousness. 

“We were able to assemble this extraordinary crew of 80 people for one day in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2023, and really exhume the ghosts of January 6, 2021,” says Moss at the Q&A. “We were in the same hotel where the insurrectionists themselves had stayed, and we were reclaiming it, I think, for democracy.”

“Literally doing this on January 6 probably impacted all of us,” adds Bullock. “When you look at five different presidential administrations — Democrats and Republicans — the expertise of the people that actually participated in this was both, in some ways, stunning but heartening, because all of them, even if we have political differences, were thinking what we share is a true belief in this country and its institutions.”

The filmmakers and the participants hope that War Game serves as a call to action. “We have a Congress that is deeply divided. But, more importantly, I think it’s cowardly,” says Heitkamp. “They’re swearing an oath to themselves. And we need to shame them. We need to hold them responsible, and we need to vote them out of office, because if there are no political consequences for gaslighting January 6, then it’s going to be repeated. And so it’s time that movies like this spark dialogue and conversation.” 

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.