Michael German went undercover with white supremacists for a year and with right-wing militants for another eight months and now he wants to set some things straight.
“One of the things I learned working undercover is that the studies that the FBI or even academia had on these groups were very different from what I was seeing in front of me,” German says.
His book Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent swiped at the powers that be, who didn’t want to hear that their approach to counterterrorism was going off the rails after 9/11. Writer/director Daniel Ragussis read that book, called up German, and the two distilled German’s 16 years at the FBI into a fictional thriller, Imperium, which takes an uncommonly realistic approach to the portrayal of an undercover agent.
“They’re not typically a superhero,” he adds. “They don’t have superhuman strength or incredible fighting skills that can get you out of trouble. You’re almost always outnumbered and outgunned, and the idea of fighting your way out of a problem is far from reality. You’re going to have to figure a way to convince the people that you are who you say you are, and you’re going to have to work out difficult situations by using your personal skills rather than physical.”
German calls the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Nate Foster — a thoughtful, well-read Iraq War veteran who’s talked into undercover work — a “stroke of genius.” He notes that the actor, who’s done his share of both sensitive character studies and Harry Potter action, was able to “embody that strength in their conviction, but also the vulnerability a person at great risk at all times would have.” The film offers little violence, but finds much tension in the mental gymnastics Foster must work through as he ingratiates himself with white supremacists. But one of the more fascinating elements of this story is how startlingly informative it is about the entire white-power movement.
“They are prolific writers,” says German. “They had all kinds of philosophy and theology manuals on how to engage in acts of violence, and it’s those materials that allowed me to interact with them in a way that made sense. It’s a group where you can’t talk about last night’s basketball game or the World Series, because those sports have very diverse teams. They have their own forms of entertainment and their own history they rely on.”
And while many of the characters in multiple subsets of the white-extremist movement — neo-Nazis, religious Ku Klux Klan members, far-right-wing pundits, punk skinheads — all seem dangerous from their talk, German says the film tries to emphasize that “talk” means nothing to an FBI agent. They are specifically interested in who is an active threat, and that's not always the loudest voice in the room. And sometimes giving too much publicity to those loud voices just fuels the flames.
When German and Ragussis dreamed up the story four years ago, ISIS wasn’t making front-page headlines every day. German believes the FBI's quiet counterterrorism methods with homegrown white-power movements have proven more effective than its handling of foreign or nonwhite groups. The movie showcases what he considers the right way.
“In these cases, the FBI doesn’t impose an enormous amount of public fear, and they’re able to prevent incidents through effective use of undercover agents, focused specifically on those doing harm,” German says. “When you see these cases coming out in the press, these people did have weapons and have taken steps toward hurting someone.”
German sees this counterterrorism methodology in direct opposition to those taken against nonwhite and foreign terrorist suspects, in which the government has a hand in sensationalizing even small leads, despite there often only being a suspicion of intent rather than an actual imminent threat. By and large, he thinks the FBI is too focused on the ideology of groups. Radcliffe's character learns this lesson through trial and error, along with his case agent, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette). Other movies might portray every bureaucrat as a behind-the-scenes jerk-off trying to foil the renegade agent’s big plans, Zamparo is more of a partner and a champion, even protecting her new recruit from other bureaucrats.
“The case agent is very important,” German says. “That’s who conceives the case, initiates it and drives it, and often has to overcome a number of bureaucratic hurdles that risks their career as well.”
German’s investment in the film strays toward the realm of public service. He works now for the Brennan Center for Justice, focusing on protecting human rights while countering terrorism, and has a message for all of us with glazed-over eyes in this monumental year of violence.
“One of the things I learned from doing this work is that terrorism isn’t nihilistic violence,” he says. “What terrorists hope to do is provoke the government to take actions that are against its interests. Part of the reason terrorists have these manifestos and literature that names names is so the government will know who to take repressive action against. Once that happens, the terrorists can build a legitimate grievance with the government and expand the divisions that already exist.”
But German sees a smarter response than governments simply perpetuating the cycle. “There's a better way,” he notes. “Effective counter is making sure that your response is directed narrowly on the people who are doing harm, so you’re not creating new grievances.”
But most of all, effective counterterrorism — in Imperium and in the real world — requires finding empathy, striving with every fiber of your being to see from someone else’s point of view.