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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 a university professor 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, 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: Averted with Dick Scobee, the Langs fall guy for the St. Louis IRS bombing, the film ends with the world still believing him to be a lone-wolf terrorist.
  • 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 Langs frame-up of Michael for the FBI bombing only works because he is killed in the attack, preventing him from pointing the authorities in the Langs 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 terrorist's son has burned his hand off a few minutes before the opening sequence with a fire-cracker and is nearly run over by the professor, walking down the road in a daze with a shredded hand.
  • Downer Ending: And how! Michael, Whit, and almost two-hundred others die in the bombing of the FBI HQ, and Michael is posthumously framed for the bombing by the actual culprits, the Langs, who get away with everything. Grant survives, but now his stepmother and his father have both died, and he now has to live with relatives, never knowing his father was framed.
  • Driven to Suicide: William Fenimore Sr., if Oliver is to be believed.
  • Foreshadowing: In one of his lectures, Michael discusses a terrorist attack 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 Langs 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 Michael if he was visiting the offices 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 Langs 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.
  • The Hero Dies: Michael himself at the end.
  • He Knows Too Much: The reason why the Langs want to kill Michael.
  • Hostage Situation: The professor's son is kidnapped to force the professor into compliance.
  • 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: The professor's new love interest 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 Cherylís hands. And itís made to look like a car accident.
  • The Lost Lenore: Leah Faraday
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The professor's new love interest is killed off in a convenient car 'accident' after discovering too much.
  • 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 professorís 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 an explosion 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 this.
  • 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.
  • Western Terrorists: The antagonists appear to be part of an anti-government right-wing terrorist organization, however the details are left vague.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Zigzagged by the Big Bad; 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.