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Review: 'Agents Of Chaos' Explains Where We Are - and How We Got Here

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 23, 2020
'Agents Of Chaos'
'Agents Of Chaos'  

Russian trolls and Russian collusion. Hillary Clinton's emails. A hostile foreign power's meddling in the 2016 elections, the spectre of a repeat this year, and the GOP's refusal to do anything about it. The Mueller investigation, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr's rendition of it. Ukraine. Impeachment. The Steele Dossier. Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and — lurking always in the shadows — Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The hot button words and the headlines have often felt like an unceasing hail of innuendo, cover-ups, distractions, and disinformation — and, in many ways, that's exactly what they have been. But how does it all tie together?

Set aside two evenings of your life, and the last four years will start to make sense. HBO presents another excellent documentary in Alex Gibney's meticulous, thoroughly detailed "Agents of Chaos."

Written by Gibney and Michael J. Palmer, with Part I directed by Gibney and Part II directed by Gibney and Javier Alberto Botero, this doc presents the sort of deep-diving, clear-cut, evidence-based reporting that we've needed all along but, thanks to an ADD news cycle and the constant barrage of lies, distortions, and outrages emanating from the White House, we just haven't had much of a chance for it.

Gibney interviews Obama administration officials, Trump business associates, and figures from the heart of the Trump-Putin maelstrom to piece together the story of just how Donald J. Trump and the schemes of Russian oligarchs and military intelligence intersected in a perfect democracy-eroding storm. It's all laid out: The way Russia's own nascent democracy was obliterated by a rigged election in 2012; Russia's aggressive intervention in Ukraine serving as a forerunner to its hostile actions targeting the 2016 elections; the way in which Trump's real estate ambitions brought him into contact with the players in Moscow who would prove instrumental in manipulating the American electorate; and, most crucially, how Russian meddling continues to this day, with Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate willing to be taken on a ride by the Russians as long as the big red bus is headed in a direction of their liking.

Perhaps the most crucial take away from this documentary is the observation that to Trump's mentality - and, we're told, the overall view among Russian's elite - is that "rules are for suckers." The direct opposite of this is another observation we're given, to the effect that the rule of law is only possible when those in charge (and society at large) is willing to acknowledge facts and act accordingly.

It's very much an open question where we go from here: Back toward some sort of rational objectivity, or deeper into a rabbit hole of magical thinking in which opinion dislodges expertise. The cast of characters in this real-life drama hardly offers much reassurance. The historical players we learn about here are so venal — and, in some cases, so shockingly incompetent, often succeeding despite themselves — that "Agents of Chaos" makes for the sort of fascinating, multi-layered narrative that would be perfect for addictive of long-form trash TV, a season of "Fargo," or a four-hour Martin Scorsese epic along the lines of "The Irishman." The downside, of course, is that the cost for this particular brand of binge-worthy rubbernecking is so very high and so acutely real.

Indeed, the only political theater to rival "Agents of Chaos" at this moment is the sight of McConnell's blatant hypocrisy in vowing to rush a new Supreme Court nominee through the confirmation process after having set a dangerous precedent in February 2016, after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, in refusing to allow a sitting president to select a replacement, saying it was too close to an election that was nine months away. (This time the election is only six weeks away, but McConnell and the usual GOP suspects blush not.)

If you're frightened for the prospects of America's democratic way of life, then watching this film won't reassure you — though it will give you the comfort of at least feeling like you finally have a grasp of what has been going on. If you're the sort of eternal optimist who believes America exceptionalism will protect it from the worst, then you'll take further heart in Gibney's sunny musings that America — for all the disheartening ways in which we increasingly resemble Russia, with its dysfunctional society, reliance on propaganda over news, kleptocratic government, and tendency to think it should deal with protests by "dominating" the streets — is still a place where free and fair elections ensure that we choose our own government.

That, of course, is far from certain at this point — but it's a thought worth holding on to.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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