"There's just so much ground to cover."
That's the frequent refrain of director Jack Bryan when I talked to him about his new film Active Measures, the first major documentary to address the allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and agents of the Russian state. (Full disclosure: Bryan is a friend of mine.)
Released Friday in theaters and on iTunes, the film pulses with a palpable sense of urgency. And yet, as feels so often the case in our political era, the urgency is strangely unconnected to any specific call to action, leaving the viewer instead with a corrosive sense of dread that may contribute to the very conditions that made Russian propaganda effective.
Bryan's certainly right about the amount of ground, and he covers it lucidly. The film's narrative posits the most extreme, yet still plausible version of President Trump's involvement with Russia — essentially what Jonathan Chait expounded on in his explosive article at New York, according to which Trump has been a Russian asset to some degree since the 1980s and has been beholden to Vladimir Putin-connected oligarchs and organized crime figures since the early 2000s. One of the film's talking heads describes Trump's election as the greatest intelligence breach in human history.
But Trump isn't really what the film is about, except as an example of a larger phenomenon. Rather, the film is first and foremost about Putin's Russia, and the threat it poses not only to the United States, but to democracy worldwide. Beginning with Georgia and Ukraine, and extending to countries like Hungary, France, and the United States, Russia has shown a willingness and ability to involve itself in the politics of other nations, not only with a view to promoting its interests directly (something plenty of countries lobby for), but to fracturing their societies and weakening their political systems. Spreading suspicion and animosity between social groups and political factions keeps those nations from posing a coherent challenge to Russia and its oligarchic elite.
It's a powerful story — and like most advocacy-oriented documentaries, a partial one. Bryan is at pains to differentiate himself from provocateurs like Michael Moore, to say nothing of outright propagandists like Dinesh D'Souza. Bryan is keenly aware that he is not a Russian expert; "people don't need to hear what I think," he told me. For that very reason, he eschews narrative-shaping devices like voiceover, and is himself only heard asking one question; the entire narrative voice of the movie is constructed from snippets of interviews with various experts.
But he also declined to include any voices that are skeptical or that raise qualifiers to the story he is telling. He claims they would detract from the narrative force of the film, and that the skeptical side of the story is already well-represented in the media. "The message that there's nothing to see here is broadcast every day from the president's bully pulpit and from Fox News," he says. But an impartial stab at historical analysis would surely discuss the ways in which America also intervened to shape the politics of countries like Georgia and Ukraine, in ways that Russia found threatening even if they were motivated by American idealism. A complete story of the Russian mafia's penetration of the United States would acknowledge the ways in which some of the key figures — including figures connected to Trump personally, like Felix Sater — are also connected to American intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies. And it is unlikely to escape the notice of skeptics that the case against Trump specifically remains overwhelmingly circumstantial.
The divisions that Russian propaganda aimed to exploit predated their involvement in U.S. politics and have authentic domestic roots. Russia didn't rig the Republican primaries to give Trump the nomination, nor did they gift him the massive free media that followed his every utterance. Nor is Russia to blame for the wide and deepening unpopularity of the EU — to say nothing of the rise of right-wing populist governments in Turkey, India, Israel, and other countries far from their area of geopolitical concern. It's tempting for certain political figures to lay the bulk of the blame at Russia's feet, but Walt Kelly's famous quote — "We have met the enemy and he is us" — is still the better part of wisdom. The threat to democracy from Russia is not external but internal, not that we will be cowed into subservience but that we are so riven by faction and so rotten with corruption that we will welcome foreign assistance in vanquishing our domestic foes.
Which is what makes it particularly unfortunate that the best-known talking heads in the film, and the ones that will surely draw in the most viewers — Hillary Clinton and the late John McCain — are precisely the individuals already most associated with the most forcefully anti-Russian perspective, and whose reputations would benefit the most from such an interpretation. Bryan can't be faulted for capitalizing on the coup of landing those interviews. But it's almost touching that he believes their expertise lends his argument greater credibility, as opposed to contributing to the very division that he ostensibly is aiming to combat.
Active Measures may cover a lot of ground, but in the end, it still falls into the same trap that has ensnared so much coverage of America's duly elected president.
Editor's note: This article was slightly revised to clarify a detail about the director's career.