Film Review: Active Measures

Comprehensive documentary looks at how Russian operatives under Vladimir Putin manipulate politics around the world.
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The premise is simple. Donald Trump has pledged so much fealty to Vladimir Putin—despite the findings of Congress, the international intelligence community, the media and plain common sense—that he must be seriously compromised. Yet Trump's denials, obfuscations and outright lies have kept his base at bay.

Active Measures wants to prove Trump's guilt, his complicity with Russian efforts to change election results in his favor. Director and co-writer Jack Bryan doesn't come up with a smoking gun per se, but he builds an exhaustive case for Russian duplicity.

Unfortunately, Bryan's case quickly turns into a dense, confusing slog through a bewildering array of newspaper headlines, TV news clips, splashy graphics and talking heads. Bryan has snagged some remarkable "gets," notably an energized Hillary Clinton and a very persuasive John McCain, but the close to 30 on-camera interviews are ultimately hard to keep straight.

Active Measures (in Russian espionage, the term refers to how spy agencies influence world events) begins with a biography of Putin from his days as an FSB (Federal Security Service) hatchet man to his rise to head of government. Arousing nationalist fervor, he amassed power as well as wealth, leaving a trail of death and corruption. No one can walk away from this movie feeling good about him.

Bryan traces Putin's dirty work through former Soviet satellites like Georgia and Estonia, showing how Russians used hackers, the military and assassins to overturn democratic elections. Russian involvement in the Ukraine plays out like a forerunner of our own 2016 election—fake news, hacked computer systems, compromised candidates.

The documentary's other major emphasis is on dirty money. Putin's circle of mob oligarchs launder money through real estate, in particular the kind of overpriced condos Trump offers in some 30 towers around the world. A large percentage of their units are owned by anonymous, untraceable shell companies. As Vanity Fair reporter Craig Unger notes, flip one $5 million condo four times, and you've laundered $20 million in mob money.

If it's hard to trace the money, it's even harder to grasp the players involved. Mobsters like Semion Mogilevich and Dmitry Rybolovlev pop up in menacing mug shots, connected by red arrows to underlings, financiers, pols, PR hacks and clueless in-laws. What they actually did is less clear, although there seems no doubt that key Trump administration figures like Wilbur Ross should be in jail.

Active Measurescovers a lot of bases, including an extensive account of Paul Manafort's heinous work with despots. Michael Cohen slides by in a tangent, Michael Flynn is seen leading his uber-hypocritcal "Lock her up" chant, and for good luck there's Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix telling an Iowa Caucus audience how his company used Facebook to throw the 2016 election.

Tellingly, Trump comes off as the clichéd "useful idiot." Broke, rejected by U.S. banks, he begs the Russians for a bailout, and is "turned" years before he runs for President. Does Trump know how compromised he is? Or is his narcissism so pathological that he sees himself as a counterpart to Putin?

No matter how hard Bryan tries, Active Measures isn't likely change the minds of MAGA followers inured to Trump's behavior. For others, this documentary confirms their worst fears about the greed and deceit infecting our government.