January 6 Wasn’t a Riot. It Was War.

Four Hours at the Capitol, a new HBO documentary, is a vivid, terrifying picture of violent insurrection.

Protesters waving flags at the Capitol Building on January 6
Leah Millis / Reuters

In the days and weeks after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, commentators and media outlets grappled with the question of what to call that event. Language is sticky; it clarifies and obfuscates the truth depending on who’s wielding it. January 6 was described as or likened to a “riot,” a “tourist visit,” an “insurrection,” a “peaceful protest,” and a “coup attempt.” And yet, watching Four Hours at the Capitol, Jamie Roberts’s tight, unsettling new HBO documentary about that day, another word seemed more appropriate to me, one that most of the participants interviewed in the film might agree on. More than anything else, January 6 was war.

There have been a number of incisive breakdowns of that day, including “Day of Rage,” The New York Times’ 40-minute film detailing how the attack was strategized and executed, and how President Donald Trump and his allies fomented mass anger and even seemed to encourage the violence. Four Hours at the Capitol isn’t as analytical, or as thorough in its parsing of all the information that’s emerged. But its immersiveness offers something else. With his rigidly chronological framing and his interviews with people who were present at the Capitol that day, Roberts captures the extent to which both sides were engaging in combat. This dynamic emerges over and over again throughout different accounts and video clips. One clash between Capitol Police officers and pro-Trump extremists is referred to by a participant as “the battle for the tunnel.” Different interviewees describe fighting on “the front line,” engaging in “hand-to-hand combat,” and, in the case of one police officer, the strangeness of walking through his own colleagues’ blood. In a scene that seems ripped right out of a Bruce Willis movie, a police commander shouts, “We are not losing the U.S. Capitol today, do you hear me?”

Like most people, I watched January 6 unfold from my couch, where the cognitive dissonance of seeing men in full tactical gear and Confederate Army cosplayers traipsing through the Capitol’s hallways was undercut by a genuine horror about what might happen next. TV news showed how easily the small number of Capitol Police officers present that day were overwhelmed. Matter-of-factly, Four Hours at the Capitol documents how fiercely they fought to keep the insurrectionists from overwhelming the building and reaching members of Congress. Roberts sweeps viewers quickly into the day, starting with an assembly of Proud Boys on the National Mall who seem disturbingly primed for violence even at 10:35 in the morning. Around noon, after Trump declares, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” his followers start heading to the Capitol, a makeshift army equipped with flags, weapons, even a hangman’s platform.

Four Hours lets its subjects speak without interjection or correction, a decision that seems to respect its audience’s ability to reason out the logical gaps. Most of the people interviewed who stormed the Capitol that day seem either savvy enough to avoid self-incrimination or steeped in self-delusion. Roberts occasionally editorializes, following up a scene in which a Georgia car dealer recalls how proud he was that day “to see the American spirit that was on display” with footage of people smashing the windows of the Capitol with body shields stolen from cops. But there is something striking in seeing people on two sides of a very recent conflict discuss the opposing roles they played in it. “They were trying to kill us. There was no doubt in my mind,” says Michael Fanone, an officer who was dragged away from his colleagues by a crowd, beaten, and Tasered, resulting in a mild heart attack and a brain injury. “There was a lot of fighting between patriotic people and Capitol Police” is how the Proud Boy Bobby Pickles puts it, likening January 6 to “1776, because it reminds us of revolting against our government.”

The breadth of people Four Hours includes adds emotional texture to its presentation of events. Roberts interviews both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as well as the aides who hid in dark rooms, afraid they were going to be killed. Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona describes the violent plan he made if he had to fight to survive, while Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro recalls phoning her husband to tell him that she loved him, in case she didn’t make it out alive. Representative Buddy Carter of Georgia enthusiastically recalls needing to “fight” the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory, but seems frustrated that others took his words too literally. “How could y’all be so stupid? Guys, we were winning,” he says, exasperated. “We were winning the moral wars.”

What’s clear, watching the documentary, is how much worse things could have been—what might have happened if the hordes screaming Nancy Pelosi’s name had gotten to her, how bloody the day might have become had more police officers used their weapons, how many more cops and rioters might have died. As it was, one officer died the next day after suffering two strokes, while four died by suicide in the weeks after the battle. One pro-Trump extremist was fatally shot in the Capitol, one died of an amphetamine overdose, and two died of medical events related to heart conditions. The wife of Jeffrey Smith, a D.C. police officer who took his own life with his service weapon nine days after the attack, says that her husband was a “completely different person” when he arrived home that evening. “There was obviously something that happened that changed him.”

Capitol Police officers are equipped to deal with violence and threats to their lives. They’re not trained for warfare, which is what must have made January 6 and their task of defending the U.S. Capitol seem so absurd. The last time a mass of insurrectionists forced their way into the building was in 1814, when British forces set fire to the Capitol, the White House, and the United States Treasury. Never before 2021 had the Confederate flag been paraded through the seat of the U.S. government. Even now, as my colleague David A. Graham wrote earlier this week, pro-Trump factions are trying to redefine January 6 as a mythic symbol, a New Lost Cause. But what Four Hours at the Capitol captures is impossible to deny: Pro-Trump forces went to war against the American officers charged with defending democracy.