Reminscent of Queensryche's Operation Mindcrime, Arlington Road asks and answers the question of how easy it is to dupe an individualistic anti-government person into carrying out a role that suits their own agenda.
The answer is that it's quite easy. Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) teaches a class on terrorism at a local University near Washington, DC. His wife, a former FBI agent, was killed when a bunch of agents botch an anti-terrorism operation. (This echoes the Ruby Ridge incident where FBI agents shot and killed Randy Weaver's son and his wife in August 21, 1992.) Needless to say, Faraday's respect for authoritarian figures doesn't run high, and this is compounded by his theories that terrorists rarely operate on their own and that the government is making terrible mistakes when it identifies one or two people responsible for a terrorist attack as a means of giving people a sense of (false) security. This enables (in an Orwellian scenario) to keep the people in check, as well as continue to cement the position of people in power.
Things turn topsy-turvy when Faraday saves the life of his neighbour's son (Mason Gamble), and befriends the family of Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack). As the friendship between them grows, Faraday realises that everything isn't quite all what it seems with the Langs. Soon he discovers that the Langs are part of a militia organisation whose goal is to break the sense of (false) security fostered by the government. As he digs deeper, the Langs start controlling his life to a point where his every action is completely and totally manipulated to their own nefarious ends.
The pacing, suspense level, and the effects are slightly above average. The acting is decent. Jeff Bridges plays a decent role as a simple man caught in a deadly web of terror. Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins are eerily convincing as deadly terrorists masquerading as simple people. And Hope Davis as Faraday's former graduate student also serves him well as his love interest.
Arlington Road is a thought provoking film that asks the question of why terrorists do what they do? The biggest problem with the logic presented in the film is that terrorists do what they do to attract attention to themselves and their cause. It does not serve their interests when a patsy who apparently has motives different from their own is held responsible for a terrorist attack.
Arlington Road also sets up a plot with a great ending, but the level of the suspension of disbelief required is high. For example, how could anyone predict the behaviour of Faraday to such a degree that they can use him as a puppet in the way the terrorists do?
Arlington Road ultimately fails to give an answer to the problem of terrorism, however, and the execution of the high brow concepts presented in the film leave something to be desired. The film is however definitely worth renting for the underlying insights it provides, and for the surprising and unexpected ending.