By William Dunkerley
If you believed Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, this movie is for you. If you’re an ideologue on an anti-Russian bender, you’ll find this movie intoxicatingly pleasant. But if you want a real dose of reality about the troubling Trump-Russia scandal Active Measures has nothing for you except an object lesson in how mass deception is done.
“The President is a puppet of Vladimir Putin!” That sums up the revelations of Jack Bryan’s blockbuster documentary Active Measures. Putin’s alleged efforts to manipulate the 2016 Presidential election in collaboration with The Trump Campaign are the “active measures” that title the film.
Interviewees form a star-studded cast, including former presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and the late John McCain, former US envoy to Moscow Michael McFaul, the former presidents of Georgia and Estonia, among others. There’s no host asking questions — just the commentaries and quips from the interviewees alone.
Active Measures is a term coined during the Cold War era to describe a variety of deceptive Soviet political warfare activities that can loosely be described as propaganda. Active measures are frequently used in the media to promote political positions.
From a media analysis standpoint, one fact stands out clearly. This is a movie that seems intent on convincing audiences of its premise. But it doesn’t offer much relevant proof.
For instance, Clinton says of Putin, “He wants to be the richest man in the world.” How in the world does she know that? Then there is McCain’s comparison of Putin with the rise of Hitler. McCain just joined Clinton with more hyperbolic disparagement.
Other characters in the movie touch on issues that have been blamed on Putin. For example, Jonathan Winer, a former State Department Official, said the 2006 polonium poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko was a “murder that was very directly linked to Russia.” Another former State Department official Daniel Fried claimed that “Putin started forcing the independent media to knuckle under, putting in state control, turning them into propaganda outfits.” Fried goes on to claim that Putin started “going after independent journalists… They ended up dead.” These are all allusions to mainstream myths about Putin.
Some of their assertions seem to belie a level of confusion. Former ambassador Michael McFaul, speaking about the alleged 2016 election hacking said, “They stole the data. Let’s be clear about it… This is theft. If the Russians walked into my house and took something out, this is exactly the same thing.” This is not the same thing.
A more consequential matter is that of Putin’s KGB background. “His role in the KGB was to support Russian intelligence officers living under assumed identities under deep cover inside the United States and developing active measures to impact the policies of the United States.” That is a quote from Jeremy Bash, identified as CIA chief of staff 2009-2011. However, it appears that Putin’s actual role in the KGB was extremely insignificant, virtually that of a clerk assigned to a backwater posting in Dresden, East Germany.
Active Measures presents yet more specious, factually unsupported stories to advance the movie’s primary premise. For example, there is the matter of the 2016 Republican platform with regard to Ukraine. There’s also the mysterious death in Washington DC of the head of Russia’s English language broadcasting arm. These and other vignettes appear to follow a similar pattern of deception.
Some of the speakers appear to have excellent credentials, but closer scrutiny suggests that they may be speaking outside of their areas of expertise. For example, Winer was State’s special envoy to Libya. Then he became associated with the Steele dossier, a document which has largely been discredited and tied to the presidential campaign of Hilary Clinton.
But the ultimate impact of the material about Russia is to mislead the audience to a conclusion that is at odds with the truth. The film sets out to warn the audience about active measures being used to deceive Americans. Ironically, the film is itself an example of active measures.
Cast members state unfounded premises about Russia as if they are facts. Then they draw conclusions based on those premises. The fast pace of the film does not allow the audience to weigh the information before the next speaker is up. The pacing makes the film feel like a two-hour long trailer. Audience members unable to tag the premises as false will likely be drawn into accepting the conclusions without realizing they’ve been hoodwinked. That’s the danger presented by Active Measures.