Bunker Hill

During my quick visit to DC this weekend, I had the chance to catch the world premiere of Kevin Willmott’s thought-provoking new film, Bunker Hill (IMDB), which depicts the reactions of the residents of Bunker Hill, a small town in Kansas, after a mysterious event suddenly shuts down the town’s electricity, including all communications technologies. Mixing contemporary, and highly resonant, political issues with the dramatic force of film genres such as the western and the post-apocalyptic thriller, Bunker Hill challenges viewers to think about how we might react if the country was faced with another terrorist attack.

Bunker Hill initially focuses on the personal conflict between Peter Salem (James McDaniel) and Hallie (Laura Kirk), who had been married before Salem spent some time in prison for insider trading. We also learn that Salem had been working for a company based in the World Trade Center when it was attacked. Willmott, whose previous film was the fascinating mock documentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, allows their story to build gradually, introducing us to the couple’s complex history before setting in motion the terrorism plot. After their separation, Hallie relocated to her hometown in Kansas, settling down with Johnny, one of the town’s wealthier businessmen. Other tensions in the town are introduced when Delmar–Johnny’s brother–harasses the Pakistani owner of the town’s gas station, Mr. Farook (Saeed Jaffrey) and his son.

The event itself is introduced quietly. There are no audible or visible explosions. There’s nothing to specifically indicate that an attack has taken place. Everything simply stops working, leaving the isolated town searching for explanations. Despite the best intentions of the town’s one police officer, their fears are only multiplied when the townspeople gather at the local church to figure out what happened and how best to respond. Some of the locals seize upon a very loose interpretation of the Posse Comitatus Act in order to provide “security” for the town. These activities do include providing food and water for locals, but they also include unlawful–and highly dubious–searches of people’s homes in order to protect the community, recalling some of the more restrictive elements of the Patriot Act .

These feelings of paranoia are only reinforced by Bunker Hill’s inability to communicate with the outside world after the event. No telephone calls. No radio or television. No internet. And when a local youth attempts to travel to the next town to find out what might have happened, the town’s worst fears are confirmed when his horse shows up in town, but he fails to return. These fears are only amplified in the town meeting when the police officer reads instructions from a homeland security tract. While the recommended actions–keeping a supply of water and food, duct taping plastic over windows, wearing masks to filter potentially toxic fumes–may sound banal enough, in actual practice, they reflect the post-9/11 cocooning and enforced isolation that can only breed further mistrust of outsiders.

This fear and paranoia becomes directed at the small band of people who are marked as outsiders, whether due to ethnicity or sexuality, who are ultimately forced to join together against the angry, fearful mob that develops under the leadership of Johnny and Delmar. And the conflict between these two groups plays out through Willmott’s keen use of genre elements, including a shootout between Delmar’s posse and Peter, Mr. Farook, and friends. While Willmott focuses on the small town of Bunker Hill, Kansas, the film itself clearly raises a number of questions about how willing we are to sacrifice civil liberties in the age of terrorism (and the film provoked an incredibly lively–and even heated–debate at the ACLU-sponsored screening I attended). As Willmott told me in a conversation, before the film, his goal is to produce films that will engender discussion afterwards. After all, he reasons, what’s the point of watching a movie for two hours if you can’t talk about it afterwards? The film itself has a relatively clear answer to many of the questions it raises about the curtailment of civil rights, but it still leaves open the possibility for conversation and discussion about issues that will continue to be pertinent in the months ahead as we choose the next president in the upcoming election.

If I’ve made the film sound overly pedantic, that’s not my intention. While Bunker Hill clearly relishes engaging in ideas, it’s also highly entertaining and suspenseful. Willmott offers an intriguing balance between politics and art, never afraid to ask some tough questions while remaining attentive to the challenges of telling a good story.

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