‘The story goes so far back’: new film attempts to untangle Russiagate
Active Measures, a documentary featuring Hillary Clinton and John McCain, is a comprehensive and at times frenetic analysis of Trump’s relationship with Russia
By Jake Nevins
Aug 31 2018
The defining paradox of what’s come to be known as the “Trump-Russia scandal” is that it’s both the most-covered story of the Trump presidency and the one that, broadly speaking, seems to interest voters least. Either its gravity is lost on us, or we struggle to unfurl the complex web of financial ties, or it’s given so much airtime on cable news, often at the expense of a litany of other cruel and corrupt acts, that “Russiagate” amounts to less than the sum of its parts. That’s a shame since, as the film-maker Jack Bryan sees it, we’ve come upon one of the wildest and most comprehensively orchestrated scandals in political history.
His new film Active Measures is the first of what will surely become its own cottage industry: the Trump-Russia doc (to say nothing of the unavoidable Donald and Melania melodramas, the Trump cabinet screwball comedies and the Woodward and Bernstein-esque political thrillers). While a host of other shoes will inevitably drop after it is released, this film is intent on giving context to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election by tracing a history of its government’s shrewd geopolitical machinations – hence the doc’s title, a kind of shorthand for Soviet political warfare. The “active measure” here is the Kremlin’s cultivation of a useful American asset in Trump, an operation which the film suggests far predates the 2016 election.
“When we started this project in March of 2017, there had been a lot of good reporting on Trump-Russia stuff. But we felt nobody was really getting it because the story goes so far back that you needed context,” says the 33-year-old Bryan, whose credits include two low-budget indie features, The Living and Struck. “If you think this operation started in 2015, it all seems very strange. But when you realize these were several ongoing operations, some of which have been going on for decades and were then turned toward the 2016 election, it all makes more sense.”
Inasmuch as knowing its contours and chronology helps our understanding of Russiagate, the film is a useful addition to the torrent of primers and explainers seen in the Times, the Rachel Maddow Show, and this very publication. But connecting the dots between a rogue’s gallery of Russian oligarchs, various money laundering schemes disguised as luxury condominiums, a Russian petroleum company, an especially compromised American presidential candidate, and a string of extrajudicial, Kremlin-sanctioned killings is, well, easier said than done. It also requires some foreknowledge: of Vladimir Putin, specifically, and how easily he’s gamed domestic politics in a post-Soviet Russia overrun by oligarchs and organized crime.
Which is why Bryan recruited some heavy-hitters for the documentary, most of whom speak with relative candor. The biggest names, of course, are Hillary Clintonand the late John McCain, Russia hardliners for whom Putin reserves special contempt. “One of the reasons we’re so proud to have John McCain in the film,” Bryan says, “is because he’s one of the few people that saw exactly who Putin was from day one.”
More helpful, though, at least for our purposes, are the intelligence experts, government officials and thinktank types schooled in Russian geopolitics, like Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution; Jonathan Winer, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement; Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia; Jeremy Bash, former CIA and Pentagon chief of staff; Steven Hall, former CIA chief of Russia operations; and John Dean, best known as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel and, later, one of the first nails in Nixon’s coffin.
For all its credibility and breadth, Active Measures can get too ambitious for its own good. Whole documentaries could be made from the film’s 10-minute dips into various subsets of the Trump-Russia affair, such as Vladimir Putin’s journey from KGB spy to all-but permanently installed autocrat, which is used as a framing device. There are also brief forays into Trump’s shady pre-presidential business dealings, the persecution of journalists in Russia, the 2004 orange revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s war with Georgia. All of this, and a lot more, is included in Active Measures, which still manages to clock in at under two hours. Though the director’s initial plan was to paint a full picture of Trump’s connection to Putin and his henchmen, the research process found him going farther and farther into the annals of Russian-American relations.