Alex Gibney’s two-night investigation into Russian meddling in our elections, Agents of Chaos, is not for the weak of stomach. Gibney, winner of a documentary Oscar and Emmy, has skillfully dissected American failure through films on Enron, Theranos, and the military’s use of torture. In his last effort for HBO, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Gibney showed his unmatched ability to turn the most opaque and convoluted subject into a Dateline-simple narrative.
Now he’s taken a deep dive into the global chain of weirdness that influenced the 2016 presidential campaign — and very early on he admits that this time he might be out of his depth. “I’m not going to make you relive the entire 2016 election,” Gibney says in a voiceover. “It was too crazy, too chaotic… But I am interested in figuring out this Trump-Russia thing. What was that?”
By the way, that’s a lie. He is going to make you relive the entire 2016 election. By the time this four-hour film is done, Gibney will have walked us step by painful step through the manipulation of the news media, of social media, and of the American political process by foreign agents. He will walk through every overtly dumb thing Hillary Clinton and her campaign did, and every secretly brilliant (or at least on-brand) thing Donald Trump and his campaign did.
“Fear, money, corruption … I can’t tell you the one thing Russia did to us or what we did to ourselves,” Gibney adds. “All I can do is tell you what happened.” Fortunately, he knows how to lighten the load. Imagine a four-hour Frontline investigation with a sense of humor and a rock-and-roll soundtrack — that’s Agents of Chaos in a nutshell. The humor is mostly absurdist, and why not, since this supposed undermining of our democracy was done using patently fake social media accounts and that smooth, smooth operator Sean Hannity?
Yes, I did say “supposed undermining of our democracy.” After four hours of watching Gibney’s expertly laid-out case, I’m still not sold. American democracy has taken plenty of hits in 240-plus years. The 1828 campaign, which elevated Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party, was pretty rough. Then there was secession, and Civil War, which the South lost. Then there was Reconstruction, and the disputed 1876 election, which the South won. And we haven’t even gotten into the 20th century. Lyndon Johnson stole a 1948 Senate election when his ballot-box stuffers outmaneuvered his opponent’s ballot-box stuffers.
Compared with our election-rigging past, 2016 was pretty weak beer. All Hillary Clinton had to do was schedule a three-day puddle-jumper through the Great Lakes and this cottage industry of Trump books and movies wouldn’t exist. To be fair, Gibney accounts for the incompetence of the Clinton campaign, but he does it in the service of the larger, darker, super-tangled story he’s trying to tell.
That takes a lot more time and a lot of interviews with really smart people. Gibney gets an amazing number of them to talk, from Russian operatives to Trump real-estate partners to Carter Page to CIA and FBI specialists, in order to (eventually, after four hours) connect all the dots: server hacking, Fakebook accounts, a “free press” divided between shiny-object chasers and partisan boot-lickers, and above it all, two transactional strongmen running quasi-criminal enterprises, an American and a Russian who instinctively understand what the other wants and — with hardly a word spoken between them — collaborate on one of the most mind-boggling election upsets in history.
“Let’s put the word collusion aside for a moment, because no one knows what it means and it’s not a legal term anyway, and let’s instead use the word seduction,” a historian tells Gibney midway through Thursday’s second part of Agents of Chaos. “Let’s imagine you’re in a bar and there’s an attractive person (who) buys you a drink. Then you move to a table and things go from there. … Am I going to find a document in which you’ve written on a napkin, ‘Dear Mr. or Ms. So-and-So at the end of the bar: I find you very attractive’?”
OK, I get it — no collusion! But what exasperates me about this film, in a way that no film has since Oliver Stone’s JFK 30 years ago, is that when you throw a bunch of stuff against a wall, and more than one thing winds up sticking, you haven’t proved anything. About half an hour after Gibney makes the case for seduction, he then uses a counter-intelligence official to argue that, well, if Trump hadn’t won the election outright, the Russkies would’ve fixed that, too. That’s how deep into our computers they were. Say what??!?
The irony of the 2020 campaign, as I see it, is that ejecting Donald Trump from the presidency will require the almost-constant stoking of fear and anxiety in voters, so that they turn out in record numbers at the polls. But fear and anxiety, of course, are at the heart of Trump’s re-election strategy.
And that’s probably why we're starting to hear all of this bad-moon-rising talk of “civil war,” “anarchy” etc., after the election. Gibney notes as much at the end of his film, when he intersperses scenes of Black Lives Matter protests with violent anti-government protests around the world, along with long lines for COVID testing in America — a sign of our supposed national weakness projected around the globe. In other words, the past is prologue, and our failure to deal with Russia’s shenanigans in 2016 may lead to much worse in 2020.
Again, though, none of this would be happening if a certain somebody had remembered that Wisconsin holds ten electoral votes. Media narratives are important. In Agents of Chaos, Alex Gibney has given us a highly entertaining media narrative about other media narratives influencing the 2016 election. But in the end, Gibney can only fecklessly hint that maybe we the people don’t get to write the story. Call me Mr. Sunshine, but I disagree. Our democracy is better than that.
Agents of Chaos Part 1 premieres on HBO Wednesday September 23; Part 2 airs Thursday Seoptember 24.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.