Active Measures, a documentary featuring Hillary Clinton and John McCain, is a comprehensive and at times frenetic analysis of Trumps relationship with Russia
The defining paradox of whats come to be known as the Trump-Russia scandal is that its both the most-covered story of the Trump presidency and the one that, broadly speaking, seems to interest voters least. Either its gravity is lost on us, or we struggle to unfurl the complex web of financial ties, or its given so much airtime on cable news, often at the expense of a litany of other cruel and corrupt acts, that Russiagate amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Thats a shame since, as the film-maker Jack Bryan sees it, weve come upon one of the wildest and most comprehensively orchestrated scandals in political history.
His new film Active Measures is the first of what will surely become its own cottage industry: the Trump-Russia doc (to say nothing of the unavoidable Donald and Melania melodramas, the Trump cabinet screwball comedies and the Woodward and Bernstein-esque political thrillers). While a host of other shoes will inevitably drop after it is released, this film is intent on giving context to Russias interference in the 2016 election by tracing a history of its governments shrewd geopolitical machinations hence the docs title, a kind of shorthand for Soviet political warfare. The active measure here is the Kremlins cultivation of a useful American asset in Trump, an operation which the film suggests far predates the 2016 election.
When we started this project in March of 2017, there had been a lot of good reporting on Trump-Russia stuff. But we felt nobody was really getting it because the story goes so far back that you needed context, says the 33-year-old Bryan, whose credits include two low-budget indie features, The Living and Struck. If you think this operation started in 2015, it all seems very strange. But when you realize these were several ongoing operations, some of which have been going on for decades and were then turned toward the 2016 election, it all makes more sense.
Inasmuch as knowing its contours and chronology helps our understanding of Russiagate, the film is a useful addition to the torrent of primers and explainers seen in the Times, the Rachel Maddow Show, and this very publication. But connecting the dots between a rogues gallery of Russian oligarchs, various money laundering schemes disguised as luxury condominiums, a Russian petroleum company, an especially compromised American presidential candidate, and a string of extrajudicial, Kremlin-sanctioned killings is, well, easier said than done. It also requires some foreknowledge: of Vladimir Putin, specifically, and how easily hes gamed domestic politics in a post-Soviet Russia overrun by oligarchs and organized crime.
Which is why Bryan recruited some heavy-hitters for the documentary, most of whom speak with relative candor. The biggest names, of course, are Hillary Clinton and the late John McCain, Russia hardliners for whom Putin reserves special contempt. One of the reasons were so proud to have John McCain in the film, Bryan says, is because hes one of the few people that saw exactly who Putin was from day one.
More helpful, though, at least for our purposes, are the intelligence experts, government officials and thinktank types schooled in Russian geopolitics, like Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution; Jonathan Winer, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement; Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia; Jeremy Bash, former CIA and Pentagon chief of staff; Steven Hall, former CIA chief of Russia operations; and John Dean, best known as Richard Nixons White House counsel and, later, one of the first nails in Nixons coffin.