"There's no agreement on facts": Alex Gibney's look at Russian interference shows America's weakness

How strong is our democracy? "Talk to me in eight weeks," HBO's "Agents of Chaos" filmmaker tells Salon

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published September 23, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Director Alex Gibney for HBO's "Agents of Chaos" (HBO)
Director Alex Gibney for HBO's "Agents of Chaos" (HBO)

Hacking our democracy was distressingly easy. Alex Gibney's two-part documentary series "Agents of Chaos" on HBO leaves no room to argue otherwise. By the end of Gibney's four-hour examination of how the Russians interfered with our elections, the filmmaker has explained the connections between Russia's takeover in Ukraine and its own suppression of dissent to our own government's tactics in 2020. The cyber assault on our voter databases and the Democratic National Committee's servers is laid out with equal precision.

But the part of the story that really stands to rob a person of any shred of trust in our system's resilience is the notion that a sizeable amount of Russia's success in aiding Donald Trump's election can be attributed to the efforts of social media trolls groping around in the dark, finding the weak spots in our society, and splitting them open with a maul . . . and that they were funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, aka "Putin's Chef" -- a former fast food salesman who kept failing upward.

"Agents of Chaos" spells out how the relentless misinformation output from troll farms, hackers from Russian military intelligence, a susceptible media and collusion on the part of Trump's 2016 campaign team created "a three-ring circus of election meddling." In keeping with the spirit of that idea Gibney piles one piece of alarming evidence on top of another and sauces it with a pair of depressing truths, one being that a number of the people who compromised our democracy are little more than opportunistic simpletons.

The other, as expressed by cyber conflict researcher Camille François, is that the Russians didn't insert some poison pill into our system. They simply exploited conflicts that were already there, and continue to exploit them to this very minute.

Gibney's docuseries also includes a few eye-opening revelations about the extent to which we continue to be manipulated by Russian influence, which the recently released bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee confirms.

That "Agents of Chaos" feels like a partner piece to his recent documentary on Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky "Citizen K," isn't accidental. Gibney began working on "Agents" after Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson approached him in early 2017, eager to provide someone a record of his findings because he feared for his life.

Simpson is still with us and appears in the film, one of a number of impossible-to-get subjects who agreed to sit down with Gibney: the list includes former CIA director John Brennan; former National Security Council Senior Director Celeste Wallander; former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe; attorney Andrew Weissmann, who worked closely with Robert Mueller in the special counsel's investigation of the 2016 election, and a number of Trump associates, including Felix Sater and Carter Page.

But it's the interviewees providing Russia's point of view who make the four-hour series a truly fascinating work, including Kremlin ally and RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, who views Trump's election as evidence of democracy working as it should.

I spoke with Gibney on the morning that Trump's Justice Department labeled Portland, Oregon, Seattle and New York City "anarchist jurisdictions," and not long after The Atlantic released its own interview with Weissmann, in which he provides an answer to a question he refuses to give to Gibney in the film.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

"Agents of Chaos" arrives at a time when the audience is getting doused with a fire hose of information. I'd even describe it more accurately as a waterfall. We're receiving lots of important information, but much of it is drowning in distraction, which of course is what your documentary series addresses. So what was your guiding approach in terms of sorting through all of that, to construct a narrative that is concise and very clearly connects the dots for people?

It's a good question. We had to wade through the chaos for a long time ourselves before we came out. You know, if you had a round with a narrative, it could try to make sense of it all. That was the motivation, in a way, because the problem with our 24/7 news cycle . . .  is that it's hard to find a narrative. Even the Mueller report and its dry documenting of this episode didn't really provide anybody with a narrative or a story. So our thinking was, we'll try to do that.

We'll try to understand it without turning it into a kind of cheap conspiracy theory where all the strands are too neatly tied up. We thought Part 1 would be about, what did Russia try to do? And Part 2 would be how did that reverberate here, which was the essential thinking about it.

Right. It was sobering to notice the parallels between the footage of the protests in the Ukraine and in Russia about a decade ago and what's going on in America now. Let's talk about the decision to open the film with that excerpt of your conversation with Margarita Simonyan. Why did you decide to open the film with her?

Actually we're opening with the election result announcement in Russia. And I would say that was a contribution by Mikey Palmer, the current writer and editor. We were uncertain about it early on, but it seemed to make a certain amount of sense for a couple of reasons. One is, you know, we always see this story from our own seat, and we're always looking over there at Russia, impenetrable Russia. And so it seemed interesting to actually start it in Moscow rather than Washington. That seemed fun.

And then [Simonyan], she's practicing this kind of political jiu-jitsu where she was saying what a glorious moment it was, because it was finally proof that American democracy works because Trump was elected. I thought that seemed like a pretty provocative way to start a movie.

Especially since lately she's been saying like, "Oh, we don't know if [Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny] was poisoned. It could have been the Germans!"

Yeah. He was in my film "Citizen K," Alexei Navalny.

Right. It must be challenging to be putting the final touches on this film, and look up every so often at the TV screen and see these developments rolling out in a story that's very much in progress. How often were you kind of tempted to include additional details as they emerged? How close to the debut were you either tweaking the narrative, even small ways, or even changing it?

We were making changes in narration right on up to about three weeks ago. So it definitely wasn't completely locked. And like I said, a number of people like Andrew Weissmann and [Andrew] McCabe didn't come on until relatively late in the process. So we were always reckoning with it.

But I think we knew, we felt that when the Senate intelligence report came out and also Cohen's book came out, those things for us were moments that pretty much aligned with what we discovered. And that's pretty good because they hadn't come out when we were forming those conclusions.

In the case of Michael Cohen, it was particularly important to have him double down on this idea that Trump for the longest time was really running and praising Putin because he wanted to do a Moscow Trump Tower deal. That's how you have to see a lot of how the election plays out in 2016 and in the Senate report, you know. They doubled down on people like [Russian intelligence operative Konstantin] Kilimnik and others that we found were pretty important, particularly after we had talked to Andrew Weissmann.

Were you surprised at Andrew Weissmann's stonewalling at the end? I guess I shouldn't be shocked that, you asked him a very direct question about culpability, and he says that although he has an answer he's not going to give it to you.

I asked him what he thought about how [Attorney General William Barr] characterized the Mueller report and whether he characterized it accurately. And he said, "I'm not gonna answer that."

Right. Thank you for clarifying.

That was disappointing to me, but at the same time, I think he made it pretty clear that by not answering it, he was infuriated by the way that Barr had represented the Mueller report. I think to some extent though, the Mueller report – and I haven't read The Atlantic piece yet – but I suspect that's part of what Andrew is getting out of this book, that he knows the Mueller report also failed to some extent by not being a little bit more pointed in its narrative. It allowed itself to be misconstrued by Barr.

If I were in your situation, I would be both frustrated by seeing these people who are coming forward and being very candid with you but then holding back important answers only to deliver those answers later to serve their own ends.

Well, it happens over and over and over again . . . you control the narrative very often in book rollouts by making sure that you turn up on shows that give you a quick hit and then move on.

There's the recent fracas of Bob Woodward saving Trump's comments about COVID from February 7th until now, when he's ready to promote his book, when that news could have been useful and might've saved lives back then. So, yeah, it's become a kind of mark of the moment. There are a lot of people who we had, and there were other people who I would have liked to have interviewed who we came close to getting, but they wanted to save it for their book tour.

Over the years you've gotten a number of sources and interview subjects to go on record who might be characterized by other journalists or filmmakers as impossible or very difficult to get to go on record. How difficult was it for you to get your subjects to talk to you for this particular documentary series in comparison to others?

Hard. Hugely hard. We couldn't get Cohen. We got Andrew McCabe very late in the game. But getting harder and harder because everybody's chasing this, everybody wants to be in a position of controlling the narrative.  Everybody's doing a book deal, everybody's doing a movie deal. There's a lot of stuff right now.

Yes, "Agents" is premiering in close proximity to many books coming out . . . but between it and all of the other documentaries and published content emerging right now, I wonder whether you think of the premiere's timing. Is it a good time to be releasing this documentary series? Because a lot of people are pursuing stories about this administration.

So far, like I said, all the stuff that has come out seems to reinforce the arguments that we make or the narrative line that we take in "Agents of Chaos." So I feel pretty good about that. Obviously any time you're going to put something out late in the fall before an election, you know that there's going to be a tremendous amount of noise all focused on the election. But in this particular case, the chaos is what it was all about.

We felt strongly that when it came to 2016, past was prologue for 2020. There are a lot of similarities between what happened then and what is happening right now. For that reason we were ready, willing and able to go into this moment, even though we knew it was going to be noisy, because we felt that it had a special resonance now that it wouldn't have after the election.

While I was watching this I kept thinking about this great quote from Trevor Noah where he said, and I'm paraphrasing him very loosely here, that when he looks around he sees a lot of evidence of the power of the American story, this idea that this democracy that is truly an experiment has been proven to be fragile, but for some reason, people believe in its invulnerability. That there this idea of America that is so ingrained in our minds and hearts of its resilience.

Right now we're going to this phase where this there's an effort to rewrite and edit parts of history that are harrowing and uncomfortable for a lot of Americans to grapple with. So I wonder if, as you were going through the process of making "Agents of Chaos," which elements of that American story might've stood out to you, or that you may have evolved over time.

Look, it's this issue that everyone is talking about that's becoming more of the norm, and that the enormous divisiveness in American society is becoming increasingly unbridgeable because there's no agreement on facts. And even the rule of law, as Timothy Snyder points out on the film, is impossible to have if you can't have facts, right?

And so if everybody is locked in their prisons of belief, or put in another way, everyone is locked in up in a kind of tribalism, the dangers going forward are really manifest. That's what I think the Russians were able to exploit so well in 2016, and that's what we're suffering from today.

So the great sense of vitality and freedom and freedom of expression we've had for so long is being undermined by our own emotional undertow to want to surround ourselves with people who think and act exactly like we do, and believe what we want to believe. And that I think is the essential American problem at the moment.

At the very end of "Agents of Chaos" you pose a rhetorical question aloud: how strong is our democracy? And I wanted to see if you had your own answer to that.

I guess my answer is talk to me in eight weeks. I was a teenager in the '60s and early '70s when there were pretty big divisions and massive riots and protests all over the country and a lot of killings and assassinations. So to some extent I've been here before.

But what scares me about this moment is I've never seen our institutions so much at risk. You can say that our institutions are flawed and they are, but that's because they're human institutions . . . but they're also institutions that allow us all to take part in this democratic experiment. And when they're blown apart with a wrecking ball by the person in power, it's a scary moment. And we'll see whether or not the wreckage can be repaired.

"Agents of Chaos" airs in two parts on Wednesday, Sept. 23 and Thursday, Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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