‘The story goes so far back’: new film attempts to untangle Russiagate

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.

Vladimir Putin with Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and the defense minister, Sergey Shoigu. Photograph: Super LTD

For all its credibility and breadth, Active Measures can get too ambitious for its own good. Whole documentaries could be made from the films 10-minute dips into various subsets of the Trump-Russia affair, such as Vladimir Putins journey from KGB spy to all-but permanently installed autocrat, which is used as a framing device. There are also brief forays into Trumps shady pre-presidential business dealings, the persecution of journalists in Russia, the 2004 orange revolution in Ukraine and Russias war with Georgia. All of this, and a lot more, is included in Active Measures, which still manages to clock in at under two hours. Though the directors initial plan was to paint a full picture of Trumps connection to Putin and his henchmen, the research process found him going farther and farther into the annals of Russian-American relations.

When we started, we knew 2004 was a very important year for us, both on the Putin side and the Trump side. But as we kept researching, the date kept going farther back, so we decided to start with the first clear act of illegality in 1984, says Bryan, referring to the sale of five Trump Tower condos to Russian mobster David Bogdan. [The research] was invigorating, and it was exciting when you found something, but at the end of the day it came down to This is really bad. And the totality of things you were excited about finding during the day took over you at night.

Bryans year-long immersion in the research, and the participation of Clinton and McCain, was particularly helpful when it came to getting people on board the documentary. After all, asking someone in the spring of 2017 to appear in your Trump-Russia project is not the most original of pitches, and he encountered some trepidation among folks who didnt want to speak prematurely on a subject that had come to engulf Trump, the intel community, and the entire DC establishment.

Their vetting process was incredibly appropriate and harsh, Bryan says of Clinton and McCain, who were making sure we werent going to be saying crazy things or trying to get them to say crazy things. With intelligence experts, Bryan needed to phrase questions in a way that demonstrated his own knowledge. Im a film guy, but if you were to walk up to me and ask my favorite movie, I would not know what to answer, says the director. But if you said, Hey, you know that scene when this guy said that to that guy? we could have a very long conversation. So the trick was to go in knowing a lot.

Donald Trump Jr, Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump. Photograph: Super LTD

When hed ask broad questions about, say, the provenance of the infamous Steele dossier, his sources were tepid. But when I would ask: Whats with the 19% of Rosneft in the dossier? theyd go: Well, thats interesting, recalls Bryan, referring to the private and mysterious sale of a sizable chunk of Russias crown jewel oil company.

Because of details such as that one, the documentary may fall on deaf ears. Rosneft, Gazprom, Rybolovlev, Agalarov, Mogilevich; some of those names are oligarchs, others are multinational companies, and those of us who havent followed the story with razor-sharp attention are hard-pressed to know the difference. But even for Americans who dont think the Russia affair is one big hoax, they still add to a sense of insurmountability.

With most conspiracies we are noticing something valid but then filling in a lot of blanks that are not accurate, says the director. Theyre usually based on one piece of evidence, and then its extrapolation. But what we have here is a massive amount of data and information. Its easier to say: Uranium One, she sold all this stuff, but when you actually look into it things dont connect and its hard to make up more than one sentence. These throwaway lines can be stickier than a complicated operation that goes back a long way.

Frankly, these Russian names, he adds, are hard to digest and contextualize.

Active Measures, to its credit, is an earnest and all-inclusive attempt to make that job a bit easier. Viewers who can consume and compartmentalize heaps of information at once will find themselves aghast at the scope of Russias infiltration. Others will have to rewind, and maybe watch with paper and pen, just to keep things straight. The film, in any case, will be an interesting time capsule to return to once Russiagate is ironed out, that is, if Robert Muellers investigation isnt quashed before we get a chance to see what it yields.

  • Active Measures can be streamed on Hulu beginning 31 August

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