'Agents of Chaos': TV Review

Agents of Chaos
Courtesy of HBO
Persuasive and infuriating, but not decisive enough for all viewers.
9/23/2020

Alex Gibney is back in the world of Russian oligarchs, leaked documents and sketchy money trails in his four-hour HBO look at the 2016 election and its aftermath.

As a documentarian, the ultra-prolific Alex Gibney has many strengths, but "certainty" isn't one of them.

The more sure Gibney is of his subject matter and his perspective on it, the more his films tend to be thorough but dry, sturdy but unremarkable. To me, Gibney is at his best when he's telling a story that's shifting under his feet, when he's learning new things and being forced into new perspectives as he goes along. His highest profile docs may be Going Clear and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. But I'll always prefer stuff like We Steal Secrets or The Armstrong Lie because they feel like the final film isn't exactly the film he set out to make, giving the director more of a presence in the storytelling.

Gibney is absolutely in "uncertain" terrain on his new HBO two-parter Agents of Chaos. And as he often does in this precarious narrative mode, he has put himself and those scruples front and center in a documentary he narrates and one in which he can be frequently heard or spotted.

Gibney wants audiences to know that he, like the viewers at home, is still grappling with issues tied to Russian interference in the 2016 election. It's interesting and involving to watch the filmmaker's mind at work even at an arduous running time of four cumulative hours. But Agents of Chaos may not move anybody's understanding beyond that "uncertainty," and if your instinct is to prefer decisive perspectives or answers, this may not be satisfying.

"OK. I'm not gonna make you relive the entire 2016 election," Gibney promises early in the first night of Agents of Chaos. It's not quite true. A fair amount of Agents of Chaos is, indeed, put together from news coverage of the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and its aftermath.

But if Hillary's emails, the DNC hacking, the Steele Dossier and subsequent investigations into allegations of collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia were absolutely key to some discussions and coverage of the election, Gibney wants to put those issues in a different context — one centered more in and around Russia — and to shout the story, at least so far as he knows it, as loudly as possible before America is done voting in 2020, when it feels like history is repeating itself.

If aspects of Agents of Chaos feel familiar, and not just familiar from dozens upon dozens of news reports and other documentaries, it's because the insanely busy Gibney has told aspects of this story in Citizen K, Enemies: The President, Justice and the FBI, Dirty Money and We Steal Secrets.

Intersections of money, power and government are Gibney's bread and butter, and this is more than just a pre-meal serving of baked goods, as he traces the beginnings of Russian troll farms, the Putin-adjacent oligarchs financially supporting them, the way their strategies were tested in Ukraine and the reasons it made sense for those Russian infiltrators to want to put Donald Trump in the White House.

Gibney, and a team of investigators working in both the United States and Russia, get access to various meme-makers, ex-cops, muckraking journalists, ambitious politicos and cold-blooded intelligence operatives from the very bottom of the pyramid to relative household names. The latter group includes Fusion GPS co-founder and Steele Dossier commissioner Glenn Simpson, FBI Deputy Chief Andrew McCabe, Trump campaign something-or-other Carter Page and Mueller Commission investigator Andrew Weissmann.

Like nearly everybody else these days, Weissmann has a book due out (next week, even) and you may have already seen juicy highlights from his glimpse inside the Mueller investigation. And maybe that's why if you watch Weissmann in Agents of Chaos, you'll feel like he's holding back at every turn.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of that with the biggest figures in Agents of Chaos, a reticence to be fully candid either because they're hoping to tell their stories in more lucrative form later or because not enough time has passed for introspection. Page just smiles and glibly denies anything incriminating. John Podesta deflects and avoids any sort of responsibility for nearly toppling American democracy by opening a rudimentary phishing email. The people here most capable of giving concrete answers are the people most evasive.

And Gibney generally seems content, if not satisfied by that. If you want straightforward, damning, clickbait answers to questions like, "How many votes might Russian bots and trolls have swayed and did that fix the election?" or "So, did Trump actually hire two Russian prostitutes to pee on a bed formerly used by President Obama?" or, you know, "Was there conclusive collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian leaders?" you're not going to get anything so black-and-white here.

Gibney finds certainly in the uncertainty. Did the Russians sway the election? Who cares? They tried to, and even giving the impression that American democracy can be so easily undermined is damning in its own way. Was actual collusion even necessary if nobody cared enough to avoid the optics? People like Page and Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos gave the impression of untoward connections to Russia and there was no reason why they had to have any involvement in a presidential campaign in the first place. The collusion didn't have to be real for the chaos to be real.

The point of the documentary, one that's right there in the title, is that it hardly matters if Russians had any impact on swaying the election. And it hardly matters if the circumstantial case for Trump/Russian collusion can be proven in any tangible way, because the success or failure of the Russian interventions can mostly be measured not in electoral votes, but in sheer chaos generated.

If there's anything that can be proven beyond any doubt, it's that the past four or five years have been chaotic. This is four hours of Gibney saying, "Just because the most titillating pieces of what we thought we were obsessed with may not have been true or at least not substantiated, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be freaked out by what happened in 2016 and vigilant and aware that the same thing is being attempted again."

Gibney has flow-charts, money trails and carefully illustrated webs of unseemly conditions to make that point, one that should outrage you regardless of your ideology. But if you want something more definitive or salacious for your four hours of viewership, you may be out of luck.

Airs September 23 and September 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.