French filmmakers Jules Naudet and Gédéon Naudet have a history with history. Ever since coincidentally capturing some of the only existing footage of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center, the brothers have immersed audiences in some of the world’s most harrowing and destructive moments.
All-encompassing and with extraordinary levels of access, documentaries like 9/11 and November 13: Attack on Paris feel like the closest we will ever get to viscerally remembering the horrors of those days. Now, two years since their last project, Notre-Dame: Our Lady of Paris, the two are back to tackle one of America’s latest atrocities in another project aptly titled for the date of infamy: January 6th.
Clocking in at just over two and half hours, the documentary recounts the entire day’s events at an epic scale. It begins in a deft but dark back-and-forth between events happening inside and outside the United States Capitol building, featuring testimonials from every corner of the chaos: government officials, Capitol police officers, protest photographers, and more.
To transition between specific locations throughout the day, the filmmakers glide through a digital model of the Capitol building, clearly illuminating the scope of the insurrection. Seeing such a large complex toppled on all sides is as harrowing as one would expect.
Well over thirty different archival sources reconstruct the catastrophe, from the building’s security cameras to independently owned footage captured in the thick of the protests. In true Naudet tradition, an unparalleled level of access gives audiences a view that’s as up-close and personal as they can get.
The events are also masterfully edited into a linear storyline. Even the most microcosmic moments from interviews have an accompanying clip to illustrate it with profound effect. Its length may be daunting for some viewers, but every minute of the film is immersive.
Eventually, all perspectives converge as the protesters storm the building. This is where the film hits its peak. The access reaches surreal levels, capturing not only the incompetence of the protesters but also how close they actually got. In one interview, a constituent recounts drawing his gun and talking to the protesters through shattered glass as they banged down the doors of the congressional chamber.
It’s a tightrope moment of tension, but contrasted with juvenile protesters who would go on to make headlines, such as Richard Barnett and Jacob Chansley, it’s a compelling balance that adds depth to the day. It was a harmful day, but some people got out of it unscathed (until much later, anyway).
In fact, that’s the one perspective missing from this documentary: the protesters. For all the shock and confusion from the ridiculous events of January 6th, nothing is more terrifying than getting inside the headspace of someone who believes in the cause, or even somebody who did and maybe does no longer.
The documentary interviews a Republican leader who continued to object to Biden’s certification even following the protest (he is one of the few conservative voices featured), yet the film doesn’t dare interview an actual insurrectionist. It’s a missing stance that leaves the documentary one-sided, which has us questioning the Naudets’ intentions to make January 6th as “apolitical” as they’ve suggested.
Still, the craft on display is undeniable. In an era where history is being processed faster and faster every day, January 6th grounds the events in a palpable panic. Despite a few moments of humanity, what really hits you is just how propulsive and unending the protests were. In their interviews, many Capitol officers emphasize how outnumbered they were, fending off crowds that never lost momentum as the hours went by.
The film invites the question: will there be another January 6 and, if so, will we be better prepared next time? If so, it will be in part because of the Naudets and their extraordinary team, whose film has instantly cemented itself as essential viewing.