Let’s take a momentary pause from reality and take a quick glimpse into how “facts” are presented in this turbulent period of “post-truth”, where Russian collusion, the media, and Hollywood have gone wild presenting innuendos, assertions, and disinformation as news.
More a mega-thread than a movie, Jack Bryan’s tying-it-all-together Donald Trump–Russia doc connects its dots for 110 delirious minutes. Active Measures links Vladimir Putin’s rise to New York real estate to oligarchs buying Trump-branded condos to the poisoning of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko to the sale of 19 percent of the Russian oil company Rosneft to 77,000 more Pennsylvanians, Wisconsinites, and Michiganders pulling the lever for Trump than they did for Hillary Clinton. Few shots in Bryan’s film last longer than a second or two, always cutting from news photos to cable clips to footage of Putin smirking like he’s a little stinker to yet another screaming news headline, often with the words Trump and Russia helpfully highlighted. Tensely pulsing electronic music underscores great swathes of it, sometimes seemingly looped, sounding like the loading screen of some apocalyptic video game.
Active Measures is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the mind. By coming on so strong, so fevered, Bryan achieves the dubious feat of making his host of documented facts, reasonable inferences, and alarming subjects for further research all seem seem less persuasive than if they had been presented more soberly. Let me put it this way: I suspect that much of what’s asserted here by Bryan and his top-shelf roster of reporters, diplomats, and politicians is accurate. But as the film chugs along — dashing through the Russians’ manipulations and then invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, showing us a former Miss Hungary asserting that Trump once invited her to his hotel room — I found my certitude actually taxed. Yes, Trump is likely, in some way, in thrall to or under the thumb of Putin, but Bryan’s case is less journalistic than propagandistic, his film assembled like an endless negative campaign ad, just a series of dark assertions made and moved on from. With such conspiracies afoot, who has time to nail a fact down?
What’s especially frustrating is that Bryan has put together a team of experts who could walk us through the specifics, building a powerful case. Those inclined not to believe in a serious Trump-Putin connection might call the film’s cast the Deep State All-Stars. Thirty seconds in, Clinton herself gamely summarizes events of Putin’s childhood. And soon we’re hearing from John McCain, John Podesta, former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, former CIA head James Woolsey, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and the like, along with reporters like Michael Isikoff and Nina Burleigh. On occasion, they get to speak more than a half sentence at a time, as when former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash explains the three key tactics of what the intelligence community calls Russia’s “active measures,” its underhanded efforts to exert influence around the world as its military and economic power wanes. These include, Bash tells us, propaganda, cyberattacks, “and to recruit, enlist, and in some cases even run agents of influence.” Good to know!
Too bad, then, that the film’s nadir comes almost immediately after, during a quick recapitulation of 2010 news stories alleging that thousands of Russians in America are engaged in some sort of spying for the Kremlin. “America Is Infested!” a headline bellows. And Bryan, who presumably must type all his emails with the caps lock on, cuts to a close-up of those words and then highlights them before our eyes. An ominous whooshing sound even plays. America is infested.
The source of that claim: the New York Post. This year offers vile surprises every day, but it’s still a jolt to see a lefty issue doc starring Hillary Clinton borrow an alarmist headline tainted with the language of McCarthy talking commies or Trump himself targeting immigrants — a headline from a Rupert Murdoch paper, no less. Bash explains a moment later that some of these foreign agents might not even realize they’re foreign agents, but the film’s paranoid momentum doesn’t let nuance sink in. His words are little match for the music, the imagery, the sharklike surging toward the next troubling connection. Sometimes Bryan simply invents a connection, as if there weren’t enough already. One low point juxtaposes Trump’s crack about preferring war heroes who didn’t get captured with a clip of Putin saying in an interview that anyone who suffered what McCain did in Vietnam would likely have “gone nuts.” Two dudes both being assholes isn’t evidence of an international conspiracy. Why show us that nonsense rather than buckle down and truly nail down the flow of cash to the world’s many Trump Towers, or the efforts of Putin to overturn the Magnitsky Act, or the evidence linking the murders of critical journalists to Putin, or the players involved in the softening of the 2016 GOP platform on the subject of Russia’s seizure of Ukraine?
Bryan’s film inspires a state of conspiracy-minded agitation, to its own detriment. One talking head brings up the conspiracy theories surrounding the unsolved murder of Seth Rich, the employee of the Democratic National Committee whom the loathsome Sean Hannity has suggested was the real source of the hacked DNC emails that were released through WikiLeaks. The film invites us to scoff at the idea that this murder was no random occurrence, but for the previous eighty minutes it’s been insisting that no occurrence is random. It invites precisely the mind-set in which bullshit beliefs take root.
The problem becomes clearest when Bryan turns to the rash of vicious made-up troll stories that proliferated on social media during the 2016 campaign. These headlines are so outlandish that no thinking person should be quick to believe them. But so are the quite-likely true connections that Bryan makes throughout the film. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. By presenting his case without it, Bryan makes that case look like it’s just more fake news.
Directed by Jack Bryan
Opens August 31, IFC Center
Available on demand
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