'Agents of Chaos' takes a deep, deep dive into the Trump-Russia nexus
Posted September 23, 2020 9:34 a.m. EDT
CNN — "Agents of Chaos" talks to a who's who of key figures in the Trump-Russia nexus, conveying the scope of a Russian operation that -- to the extent disrupting US politics was the goal -- succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Director Alex Gibney's two-part documentary is especially notable for its nuance, offering multiple angles exploring what transpired as well as the disparate motivations of those involved.
Gibney teamed with investigative journalist Lowell Bergman and reporters from Russia to paint a sweeping portrait of the multi-pronged campaign, orchestrated under Russian president Vladimir Putin's government despite his denials. Andrew Weissmann -- a top lawyer on Robert Mueller's team, who is out with a new book about the investigation -- reiterates its key finding, saying that there were "clear, unequivocal efforts by the Russian government to interfere with our election."
The title, however, refers to "agents" in the US and Russia, harboring a range of objectives. While some appear to have been motivated by greed, the documentary portrays others as simply inept, as Gibney and company try stitching the pieces of that quilt into a coherent picture, drawing from a trove of interviews with key players and third-party observers.
The former bucket includes new interviews with Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and business associate Felix Sater, who discusses negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, having testified about the matter to the House Intelligence Committee.
The documentary also digs into one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort's interactions with a Russian intelligence officer, and features an extensive interview with Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson regarding the much-maligned Steele dossier. And that doesn't even include the Russian troll farm the Internet Research Agency, or a group of Russian military hackers that went by the name Fancy Bear.
If there had to be just one takeaway from "Agents of Chaos" -- and there are actually many -- it's that the Russians employed several methods in their efforts to boost Donald Trump and suppress support for Hillary Clinton, using tools and tactics that they had essentially piloted in Ukraine in 2014.
"The one that ended up working was the social-media operation," says Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council's former senior director on Russia, who was among those who feared at the time that US authorities were too slow to respond, fearing political blowback in appearing as if they were intervening in an election.
The irony, former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe states in the documentary, is the assertion that the bureau sought to harm Trump when, he says, "there's no organization in DC that had more of an impact on helping Donald Trump get elected" by announcing that it was reopening an investigation into Clinton's emails eleven days before the 2016 election.
Academics, meanwhile, take the US government response to task but also the media for its campaign coverage. Speaking to Putin's role, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder suggests that oligarchies need "a foreign policy with clear enemies" to prove to their citizens that the government is truly on their side.
In some respects, "Agents of Chaos" has an ideal companion in Gibney's earlier documentary "Citizen K," which detailed the rise of the Russian oligarchs, their relationship to Putin, and the price one paid for crossing him.
As the press notes acknowledge, much of the information in "Agents of Chaos" has been detailed elsewhere, including the recent report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the advantage here being that the director presents that material in a more digestible (if at four hours, not necessarily economical) package.
The filmmakers reach the sobering, seemingly hard-to-refute conclusion that if Putin's intentions were to stoke dysfunction and discord in the United States, he bet on the right horse. As Gibney, who narrates the film, puts it the outset, "Being an agent of chaos was part of Trump's brand."
"Agents of Chaos" airs Sept. 23-24 at 9 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.