‘Agents’ from Rus­sia, but not with love

Gib­ney’s docu ex­plores Rus­sia-Trump ties

Arab Times - - FEATURES - By Mark Kennedy

Let’s

take a trip back in Amer­i­can his­tory, but not too way back. To a time not that un­fa­mil­iar — the last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Do you re­mem­ber all the stuff swirling around in 2016?

Fancy Bear. Paul Manafort. Julian As­sange. Guc­cifer 2.0. Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los. The Steele dossier. The “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” tape. The FBI’s “Cross­fire Hur­ri­cane” in­ves­ti­ga­tion. James Comey and Roger Stone.

Re­mem­ber how they all fit to­gether? No? You’re not alone.

En­ter di­rec­tor Alex Gib­ney with HBO’s two-part “Agents of Chaos,” a timely yet dispir­it­ing look at how a whole bunch of Rus­sian dirty tricks helped Don­ald Trump into the White House — just in time for a pos­si­ble re­play.

“I am in­ter­ested in fig­ur­ing out this Trump-Rus­sia thing. What was that all about?” asks Gib­ney, who has pre­vi­ously made doc­u­men­taries on Steve Jobs and Scien­tol­ogy. (He also did a film about Julian As­sange, who nat­u­rally shows up here, too, thanks to Wik­iLeaks).

“Ev­ery time some­one asked me what this movie was about, I’d say, ‘Well, how much time do you have?’” Gib­ney asks at the be­gin­ning. It turns out: Al­most four hours, which will tax even po­lit­i­cal junkies.

“Agents of Chaos” is a rab­bit hole that’s fas­ci­nat­ing but ul­ti­mately frus­trat­ing. It’s a well-doc­u­mented ac­count of what seems to have hap­pened in 2016 with­out break­ing much new ground. These days, if you come at the king, you best not miss. If you just re­count, you missed.

Part one lays down the back­ground, ex­plor­ing the rise of Krem­lin-backed trolls, Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in Ukraine and then Vladimir Putin’s spies turn­ing their at­ten­tion to Amer­ica to dis­rupt the 2016 vote, which Gib­ney calls “the most chaotic elec­tion of our life­times.”

Part two — co-di­rected with Javier Al­berto Botero — is how Trump fit into all this, with the sub­se­quent in­ves­ti­ga­tions into shad­owy and odd­ball char­ac­ters:

Carter Page, Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. Re­mem­ber col­lu­sion?

“Be­ing an agent of chaos was part of Trump’s brand. More chaos, the bet­ter,” the film says.

The film has frank as­sess­ments by for­mer of­fi­cials at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and Depart­ment of State, as well as jour­nal­ists Michael Isikoff and Mar­garita Si­monyan. For­mer Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign head John Podesta, whose emails were hacked, speaks of the breach, as well as for­mer CIA di­rec­tor John Bren­nan, for­mer Sen. Harry Reid and for­mer FBI deputy di­rec­tor Andrew McCabe. Page de­fends him­self from col­lu­sion and Trump busi­ness as­so­ci­ate Felix Sater lays out what he knows.

The look at Rus­sian med­dling in Ukraine in 2014 is a high­light, ex­plain­ing how trolls cre­ated fake news sites to drive a wedge in that coun­try, sowed dis­trust, used anti-Semitism and painted op­po­nents as neo-Nazis. The left and the right were lost in their own in­ter­net bub­bles. Sound fa­mil­iar?

Dis­trust

The film ar­gues that Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence used much of that play­book two years later in Amer­ica. While Trump was clearly more pro-Putin than Clin­ton, the goal was less a Trump win as much as sow­ing dis­trust and alien­ation. Rus­sian trolls were push­ing both Blue Lives Mat­ter and Black Lives Mat­ter and try­ing to dam­pen turnout.

Twit­ter ac­counts of seem­ingly solid US cit­i­zens were ac­tu­ally run by a team in St. Peters­burg, of­ten am­pli­fy­ing con­tra­dic­tory false­hoods in a “carousel of lies.” Some lies — like the murder of Demo­cratic staffer Seth Rich — jumped to shady on­line sites like In­fowars, and even­tu­ally main­stream me­dia.

While paid trolls were do­ing that, Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence was ac­tively hack­ing. The Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee’s emails were dumped on the Rus­sian on­line front DCLeaks or ap­peared on Wik­iLeaks, re­veal­ing that Demo­cratic of­fi­cials fa­vored Clin­ton over her ri­vals. The me­dia, want­ing to seem bal­anced when it came to Trump, seized on the con­tro­versy and el­e­vated it.

“It was a three-ring cir­cus of elec­tion med­dling,” the film con­cludes.

The DNC email dump of­ten got con­flated with an ear­lier con­tro­versy when Clin­ton was ac­cused of mis­us­ing the han­dling of emails while Sec­re­tary of State, mean­ing Clin­ton could never es­cape her name associated with an email scan­dal, a con­tro­versy in­ad­ver­tently fed by the FBI that ul­ti­mately had lit­tle heat, much less smoke.

The prob­lem with the film is that — af­ter four hours — it can’t gen­er­ate much heat, ei­ther. “Agents of Chaos” gives us a great blue­print of how all this hap­pened. Too of­ten daily rev­e­la­tions are over­whelm­ing and Gib­ney does a su­perb job link­ing them co­her­ently.

But Trump’s odd ori­en­ta­tion to­ward Putin is left to pure spec­u­la­tion, of­ten get­ting no closer than, “on so­cial me­dia, Rus­sian trolls harmonize with the Trump cho­rus.” Gib­ney can’t go fur­ther than say­ing some things in the Steele dossier might be true. That’s not good enough. He says the pres­i­dent’s Rus­sian ties are “pretty ob­vi­ous” and con­ducted with “winks and nods.”

Af­ter such a long trip, it’s both too much and not enough.

“Agents of Chaos,” an HBO re­lease, is rated TVMA for lan­guage and dis­turb­ing im­agery. Run­ning time: Part one is 117 min­utes, part two is 119 min­utes. Two and a half stars out of four.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: PBS’ “Front­line” se­ries con­tin­ues its three-decade tra­di­tion of ex­am­in­ing the two ma­jor party pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates with “The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Bi­den,” air­ing Tues­day on PBS sta­tions (check lo­cal list­ings for time). The doc­u­men­tary of­fers what’s de­scribed as “in­ter­wo­ven in­ves­tiga­tive bi­ogra­phies” of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and for­mer vice-pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, look­ing at what shaped the can­di­dates’ lives, how each ap­proaches power and their view of Amer­ica’s fu­ture. The twohour film is avail­able at 7 pm EDT Tues­day at pbs. org/front­line and on YouTube at 9 p.m. EDT. (AP)

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