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Film / Arlington Road

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Arlington Road is a 1999 thriller movie, in which a George Washington University professor suspects his new neighbors are planning a terrorist attack.

The title refers to a street of wealthy people in Bethesda, Maryland, about five miles from Washington, D.C.. Equivalent to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

The movie stars Jeff Bridges as George Washington University history professor Michael Faraday, who is an expert on domestic terrorism, and whose wife died in a failed FBI mission some years earlier. He has a young son, a girlfriend (played by Hope Davis) and keeps in touch with his wife's former FBI partner Whit Carver, played by Robert Gossett. One day he begins to suspect his next-door neighbors (played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) to be terrorists, based on a number of incidents that have occurred around them, including their son being hospitalized after an accident involving a firecracker. Nobody will believe him though, finding his ideas crazy and paranoid, pointing the finger at his being unable to recover from the trauma he experienced when his wife died in the manner she did.

The film notably marks the wide feature debut for Screen Gems as a label for Sony Pictures.

This film provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: The Big Bad, his friends and associates, even his wife.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Not only does the bad guy succeed in his plans, the good guy takes the fall.
  • Batman Gambit: The Big Bad knew Jeff Bridges would try his best to stop him, not realizing he was making himself look suspicious to other people. After the bombing, it was easy for people to believe Jeff Bridges acted alone, based on his own actions trying to save everyone.
  • Big Bad: Tim Robbins could be seen as one since he seems to be the leader of his terrorist cell. It is also implied that he is subservient to a Greater-Scope Villain, however this is not directly referenced or mentioned on screen. At the end when they are packing up his wife says "I hope this time they send us somewhere nice", implying they are waiting for orders from the higher ups in their organization.
  • Cassandra Truth: To be fair it is a rather wild accusation and the professor didn't really have any solid evidence.
  • Chase Scene
  • Chess Master: The villains, particularly Tim Robbins' character as he clearly knows enough about the protagonist to subtly influence his moves.
  • Clear My Name: Subverted with Dean Scobee, the Lang's fall guy for the St. Louis IRS bombing. In any other movie, Michael would've proved the Lang's guilt and Dean's innocence. Instead, Michael fails and becomes a fall guy himself, with the world still believing Dean to be a lone-wolf terrorist come the film's end.
  • Creepy Child: The terrorist's son to a small extent is this, saying "I'm sorry, that's classified information" in a rather militaristic manner, also building a 'soldier's compound' rather than simply a fort, all of which makes the professor suspicious (for good reason) and makes him think there's something wrong.
  • Creepy Monotone: Oliver Lang.
  • Cruel Twist Ending: Is it even possible to imagine a crueler ending to this movie?
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Oliver Lang was the name of the Big Bad's best friend growing up. William Fenimore Jr. took his name when Oliver died at 25 to honor him, for his identity and to cover up the Big Bad's past crimes. It was also somewhat implied he killed his friend, who died in a "hunting accident".
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: The Lang's frame-ups of Michael Faraday and Dean Scobee for the FBI and St. Louis bombings only work because they are killed in the attacks, preventing them from pointing the authorities in the Lang's direction.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The terrorist bombing that the professor is lecturing about to his class suspiciously resembles the Real Life Oklahoma City bombing. Also, the incident which caused the death of his wife heavily resembles Ruby Ridge.
  • Downer Beginning: The movie begins with Michael coming across Oliver's son walking down the middle of the road in a daze with a shredded hand as a result of a firecracker mishap. He then tries with his might to rush him to a hospital.
  • Downer Ending: And how! Michael, Whit, and almost two-hundred others die in the bombing of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, and Michael is posthumously framed for the attack by the actual culprits, the Lang's, who get away with everything. Michael's failure also means Dean Scobee's name remains besmirched. Grant survives, but now his would-be stepmother and his father have both died, and he now has to live with relatives, never knowing his father was framed and wrongly living with the stigma of being the son of the man responsible for the worst terrorist attack in American history.
  • Driven to Suicide: William Fenimore Sr., if Oliver is to be believed.
  • Fall Guy: In each of their bombings, the Lang's evade suspicion by framing an innocent man as the sole terrorist responsible. This requires killing them as alive, their fall guy can point the authorities in their direction and unravel everything.
  • Foreshadowing: In one of his lectures, Michael discusses a terrorist attack supposedly perpetrated by a single individual with no ties to extremist organizations whatsoever, which is how the terrorist attack at the end is made to look like. Moreover, Michael alone is blamed for it.
  • For Want Of A Nail: While the Lang's organization might still have targeted the J. Edgar Hoover Building regardless, had the FBI not screwed up at Copper Creek, they might never have targeted Michael as their fall guy as there would be no forged motive without Leah Faraday's death. Of course, Leah, Whit, and possibly Michael if he was visiting Leah at the offices at the time might still have died in the bombing. In addition, Brooke would still be alive as she and Michael would never have started a relationship had Leah lived.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • The death of the professor's wife during a failed FBI mission is implied to be this in the montage at the end. Subverted because it was a fabrication (the part about the death being a Freudian excuse, not the death itself)- the professor was framed.
    • The Big Bad, who's real name is William Fenimore Jr., says his family farm went broke after the government 'appropriated' the river that ran through it 'for other uses'. His father then killed himself and made it look like a tractor accident so the family could claim the life insurance. He left a note for William explaining everything. William built the pipe bomb to get back at the government. Although it's unclear if his story is true or not.
  • Gambit Roulette: As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review regarding the terrorist plot:
    "How can anyone, even skilled conspirators, predict with perfect accuracy the outcome of a car crash? How can they know in advance that a man will go to a certain pay phone at a certain time, so that he can see a particular truck he needs to see? How can the actions of security guards be accurately anticipated? Isn't it risky to hinge an entire plan of action on the hope that the police won't stop a car speeding recklessly through a downtown area?"
  • I Have Your Wife: The Big Bad takes Michael's son hostage, which is the point Michael goes off the deep end for fear of losing him.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: The Lang's manage to evade suspicion for the FBI bombing due to everyone who Michael voiced his suspicions to and those who were with him in the FBI garage and heard him yelling his son's name being killed in or prior to the bombing.
  • He Knows Too Much: The reason why the Langs want to kill Michael and why they kill Brooke.
  • The Hero Dies: Michael himself at the end.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Michael not only dies in the bombing he tried to stop, but is posthumously framed for it, being immortalized as the mastermind of the worst terrorist attack in American history (the film came out 2 years before 9/11).
  • History Repeats: Like in St. Louis, the Lang's blow up a federal building and frame an innocent man for it.
  • Hostage Situation: The professor's son is kidnapped to force the professor into compliance.
  • I Work Alone: The Lang's stage both of their attacks as being perpetrated by a single person.
  • Karma Houdini: Well yeah, the bad guy won, and is implied to have been pulling off such operations since well before the story begins.
  • Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Brooke finds out too much. Just before having a convenient fatal car accident, she had left a message on his answering machine regarding her revelation before dying, but this is also erased by the bad guys.
  • Killed Offscreen: Brooke dies this way at Cheryl’s hands. And it’s made to look like a car accident.
  • The Lost Lenore: Leah Faraday
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Brooke is killed off in a convenient car 'accident' after discovering too much.
  • Mama Didn't Raise No Criminal: Dean Scobee's father is certain his son didn't bomb the Roosevelt Federal Building in St. Louis because he loved working with kids and knew there was a daycare center in the building.
  • May–December Romance: Brooke is in her mid-20s, while Jeff Bridges was 50 at the time (and it's implied that Faraday is the same age).
  • Missing Mom: The professor's wife and the mother of his son was revealed to be a former FBI agent killed in the line of duty, which gives the Big Bad the forged motive at the end. Also, Brooke, the professor’s new girlfriend, is murdered by the villains offscreen.
  • Parental Abandonment: Poor, POOR Grant Faraday. First, his mother Leah was killed in a failed FBI mission. Then, Brooke, his would-be-stepmom, is murdered by Cheryl Lang. Finally, his father Michael is killed in a bombing and is framed for it by the real culprits (the Langs), and Grant, now an orphan, is last seen being driven off to live with relatives.
  • Patched Together from the Headlines: Michael's deceased wife Leah is killed in a botched FBI militia standoff over stockpiled guns that is essentially.Ruby Ridge, which is just the inciting incident that places her husband and son as next-door neighbors to a family who commit crimes loosely based on Timothy McVeigh's.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: A deleted scene that follows the FBI bombing implies that Grant knows his father was framed by the Langs. While this is not enough to prove Michael's innocence, it offers some consolation that Grant knows his father wasn't a murderer.
  • Really Dead Montage: Sort of, the news reports afterward painting the professor as the bad guy.
  • Right Behind Me: Michael is researching Oliver on the Kansas City Star archives at GWU when Oliver shows up.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: The nice middle-class suburban family next door turn out to be part of an organization like this, and very dangerous ones, as they're actual terrorists..
  • Sacrificial Lion: This time, it's the protagonist.
  • Scout-Out: The Big Bad convinces the professor to enroll his kid into a Scout-like organization that his son is part of. It is later revealed that the father of a supposed terrorist mentioned earlier in the professor's class was also a member of this scouting organization. The common thread? The same scoutmaster. Later the professor's kid is kidnapped by the terrorists while on a camping trip with said scouting organization.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Not only were Michael's attempts at saving everyone unsuccessful, but he took the blame for everything posthumously, and left his son an orphan.
  • Stepford Smiler: Joan Cusack's character Cheryl Lang is a Type C, played to much creepiness.
  • Suicide Attack: The Langs stage the IRS and FBI bombings as these, making sure all the evidence leads back to a single person they've chosen as their fall guy.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: Oliver and Cheryl just seem like normal, suburban Americans (albeit who have a troubled young son). Then it turns out they're far-right terrorists.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer pretty much gives the entire film away, even the ending. Both director Mark Pellington and lead Jeff Bridges have mentioned it several times in their commentary for the film. The DVD cover is also a bit of a give away too.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Michael.
  • Vertigo Effect: Occurs when Michael goes to the mall where Brooke made her final phone call and sees the Liberty Delivery Service van passing in the window.
  • Western Terrorists: The antagonists appear to be part of an anti-government right-wing terrorist organization, however the details are left vague.
  • Wham Line: Whit to Michael only seconds before the bomb is revealed to be in his car and not the van.
    "Everyone here has clearance! Everyone, except you."
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Lang's killed children in the St. Louis bombing and threaten to hurt Grant; played straight by the FBI during the siege that took the life of Michael's wife (well, the kid was armed to be fair).
  • You Have to Believe Me!: Michael is an angry, nervous wreck, even before he realized the truth about his neighbors, due to the death of his wife. When he starts to put two and two together, he grows even more emotionally unstable and moody. His wife's FBI colleague, though genuinely concerned and helpful from the beginning, has a hard time with Michael's theories and instability. By the time the FBI gets involved, it's too late.