'Active Measures': Film Review | Hot Docs 2018
Jack Bryan's documentary delivers a comprehensive account of Russia's efforts to interfere in our presidential election.
An opening title card in Jack Bryan's documentary Active Measures informs us that its title stems from a "Soviet term for the actions of political warfare conducted by Russian security forces to influence the course of world events." For nearly two hours, the rest of the film proceeds to chronicle, in exhaustive and sometimes exhausting detail, Russia's efforts to meddle in our election and the symbiotic relationship, as yet not fully disclosed, between the country's ruler and oligarchs and Donald Trump. While the headline of a recent Vanity Fair article about the film, "Is This the Documentary That Can Take Down Trump?," is certainly hyperbole, Active Measures delivers a well-researched and smartly laid-out cinematic thesis that connects the myriad dots in skillful fashion. Recently given its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, the movie should find receptive audiences in theatrical and ancillary formats, provided that current events don't overtake it.
One of the doc's strengths is the amazing number of "gets" procured by the filmmakers. Among the onscreen interview subjects are Hillary Clinton, John McCain, John Podesta and a dizzying array of diplomats, CIA officials and journalists who lend considerable credibility to the proceedings.
Active Measures begins with a short biography of Vladimir Putin in which the Russian leader's fervent desire to restore the Soviet Union to its former glory is brought into sharp psychological focus. From there, things get complicated, as director Bryan and co-screenwriter Marley Clements examine topics including Russia's interference in elections in various countries and the relationship between Russia and Trump that includes money laundering and many other financial ties. Suffice it to say that if you start a drinking game revolving around the use of the phrase "shell companies," you'll be thoroughly sloshed long before the film is over.
The sheer volume of information, while admirably thorough, sometimes proves overwhelming. No less than 29 commentators (including the aforementioned) weigh in via brief interview segments, and at times it's hard to remember who's who. Seemingly every tangent — ranging from Paul Manafort to Deutsche Bank to the manipulation of social media to a rogues' gallery of Russian oligarchs and gangsters — is explored, and even those viewers already familiar with much of the material will be confronted with new and startling facts. At the same time, Active Measures fails to provide the smoking gun necessary to make it as politically and legally impactful as it clearly aspires to be.
Although the doc doesn't entirely resist the understandable temptation toward the histrionic — its ominous musical score gives it the feel of a horror film — it proves effectively methodical in its arguments, which are buttressed by copious amounts of archival footage. It certainly serves as an effective primer on an important subject, infusing its chronicle of slow-motion espionage on a grand scale with important historical context. The proceedings include some amusing moments as well, such as when one interview subject bursts out laughing when asked how Russia launders money in America. "Everything I know that's interesting, I can't tell you," he replies.
It would be nice to imagine that the doc would have the power to sway hearts and minds. Sadly, it has been proven time and time again that most everyone inclined to support Trump seems to have an aversion to facts, no matter how impressively they're laid out. But for those already well aware of Russia's nefarious efforts to sabotage our democracy and Trump's apparent willingness to help them do it, Active Measures provides a well-organized, seemingly comprehensive account of how it happened.
Production company: Shooting Films
Director: Jack Bryan
Screenwriters: Jack Bryan, Marley Clements
Producers: Laura Dubois, Marley Clements
Executive producer: Andrew Napier
Director of photographer: Neil Barrett
Editor: Andrew Napier
Composers: Doran Danoff, John MacCallum
Venue: Hot Docs