We’re so inundated with evidence of Donald Trump’s fascistic villainy—these days, largely related to the pandemic he’s neglected and mismanaged to the tune of 200,000 dead Americans and counting—that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s also a traitorous puppet who won the 2016 election with Russian assistance. Enter Agents of Chaos, a two-part HBO documentary from the insanely prolific Alex Gibney (debuting Sept. 23) which reminds Americans that their commander-in-chief achieved his illustrious post thanks to interference from a strongman despot who saw, in Trump, an ideal tool he could use to undermine Western democracy.
Serving as the film’s narrator, Gibney states at outset that he won’t make his audience relive the entirety of the 2016 election. While that’s welcome news—even the intro credits’ montage of clips from that period are enough to raise one’s blood pressure—the investigation conducted by Agents of Chaos is nonetheless upsetting and enraging in equal measure. Or at least, it is unless you’re like Margarita Simonyan, and believe it’s all fake news, and that Trump wasn’t aided by, or in bed with, Vladimir Putin. The editor-in-chief of RT, Russia’s state-run news network, Simonyan opens the proceedings by saying that Trump’s ascendancy was a “very optimistic” development (“That is how democracy is supposed to work”), thereby figuratively scoffing at the fact that her nation sowed seeds of U.S. discord through a scheme of online disinformation, hacking, and wink-wink, nod-nod collaboration with the Trump campaign. By the conclusion of Gibney’s damning four-hour inquiry, only the willfully blind—or those with a vested interest in denying cold, hard reality—will agree with her bogus and agenda-driven attitude.
Doubt, however, is central to Agents of Chaos (whose second part is co-directed by Javier Alberto Botero). Wielding his usual array of talking-head interviews, TV news and archival footage, and digital screens and headlines, Gibney’s film makes plain that Russia preferred Trump to his rival Hillary Clinton, since he was an easily-controlled asset who revered Putin and cared more about himself than democracy, and she was a former Secretary of State who’d chastised Russia for its interference in Ukraine’s 2011-2012 election. Still, the overriding thesis of the director’s latest is that Russia’s larger strategy in 2016 was to exploit social media platforms—and the theft and dissemination of electronic data—to amplify existing schisms in American society, with the hope of undercutting public trust in, and the basic operation of, its democratic systems. That such efforts led to Trump’s victory was a beneficial outcome for Putin, to be sure. Yet the portrait painted by Gibney is of new-world warfare designed to destabilize by playing opposing social/cultural/political sides against each other, leading to inflamed tensions and cynicism about the values, and structures, governing our lives.
With regard to Trump, Gibney ends the first half of Agents of Chaos by stating, “That’s the crazy beauty about the politics of chaos. It’s hard to tell a joke from a crime. Getting help from the Russians? Just part of the game. Doesn’t matter how you play, or who you play with. As long as you wind up on top, who cares if the whole motherfucking system burns to the ground.”
Gibney’s profanity gives away his own anger over this situation, which he lays out in exhaustive detail, from the Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency (IRA) that first tested its insidious social-media propaganda in Ukraine before employing it in the U.S., to the Russian hackers of the military’s GRU and the more espionage-oriented SVR, to the complex and blatantly corrupt web connecting the likes of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page (who appears, unconvincingly, in a new interview), and Putin and Trump. With clarity and precision, his film illustrates the interconnected actions, movements, and motivations that allowed Russia to stage this virtual break-in, warp the American discourse, and establish an advantageous alliance with Trump and his cronies.
The existence of that coalition, Agents of Chaos concedes, can’t be proven by a single smoking gun; as Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder explains, there’s no one Trump document or phone conversation in which he bluntly thanks Putin for his assistance and lays out the tit-for-tat deals they’ve struck. Rather, Trump and Putin’s partnership is plain to see in their underlings’ many secretive meetings and conversations, in their own shared goals, and in their incessant public praise and support for each another. Also touching upon then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the Christopher Steele dossier (which introduced the world to the rumored “pee tape”), Gibney patiently and incisively untangles the many strands linking Putin and Trump (and those in their orbit) to reveal not only the bigger picture of their union, but also the shrewd—and invisible to the untrained eye—Russian tactics that forged it in the first place.
“With clarity and precision, his film illustrates the interconnected actions, movements, and motivations that allowed Russia to stage this virtual break-in, warp the American discourse, and establish an advantageous alliance with Trump and his cronies.”
Agents of Chaos is a thorough censure of Trump and Putin, but in dissecting how we got to our present-day nightmare, it criticizes plenty of others as well: the Obama administration, FBI, CIA, and Clinton campaign for not acting swiftly and aggressively enough against Russia’s behavior; WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange for facilitating Putin’s plan to harm Clinton’s election chances; and the mainstream media for allowing itself to be distracted by IRA-generated falsehoods and conspiracy theories (such as about Seth Rich) instead of keeping its eye on Russia’s malfeasance, which dwarfed all other 2016 stories in terms of importance. Slicing and dicing every culpable party with on-target sharpness, the film reveals a United States unprepared, at every turn, for the type of coordinated foreign disinformation attack it suffered—and for a domestic politician shamelessly open to seizing whatever illicit advantage he could to realize his goals.
In the final tally, Agents of Chaos is both an in-depth lesson about recent history and a warning about the fact that war is still being waged on America—both from outside and within—by players who don’t care about the normal rules of engagement, much less laws or ethics. As Tuesday, Nov. 3 draws near, and Trump once again stokes fears about voter fraud and “rigged elections” in an attempt to delegitimize the ballot-box results, Gibney’s urgent and informative film contends that the country must awaken to the full, horrifying scope of this chaos-sowing threat, lest it confront a near future in which the risk isn’t just to immediate elections, Supreme Court seats, and the national discourse, but to our very democratic way of life.