This Russian election interference documentary might be the most essential movie of 2020

Brad Keefe
"Agents of Chaos"

Donald Trump has said a lot of things that annoy me, but only one that I always hear in Jan Brady voice: “Russia, Russia, Russia!”

You know, the Russia hoax? The thing our sitting president was impeached over?

It’s almost hard to believe that Alex Gibney’s new documentary, “Agents of Chaos,” is even a necessary movie, let alone perhaps the most essential one of 2020.

In a different timeline, news that a foreign power actively interfered in an American election would lead to collective outrage, no matter the political affiliation. But in this political climate is there anything left that we can be collectively outraged about?

Over two parts and four hours, Gibney’s HBO doc lays out an account that would be pretty eye-opening if our eyes weren’t already mostly collectively glued shut.

“Agents of Chaos” is a deep dive that would be absolutely devastating if it was breaking this story rather than following in the footsteps of collective years of journalism and, oh yeah, the Mueller Report.

My professional career has involved aspects of social media pretty much since its inception. Did you find this review by typing “” into a browser, or did you find it on social media? I created the social media accounts for this publication because my job was to increase readership. And I learned how to increase readership by doing more of what worked and less of what didn’t. Even in the early days of social media, outrage worked. Hate click-bait? Well, you click on it.

What “Agents” does well, especially in its first half, is lay the groundwork for how a small-scale Russian troll farm could tip the balance of an American election. Oh, and they’re trying to do it again.

Gibney details how Russians have been doing this for nearly a decade, first trying to modify domestic conversations in Russia and then weaponizing the concept in the neighboring Ukraine.

“Ukraine became the lab for all of the latest and greatest from Russia’s information operations,” says a cybersecurity and disinformation expert interviewed in the doc.

And Russia's plan was to work both sides, something you can bet it has been doing this week and will continue to do up to and to and after the November election.

I first heard of Gibney with his 2005 documentary, “Enron: The Smartest People in the Room,” though he may be best known for his 2015 exposé, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief." His style is fairly straightforward, a mix of minimal narration and telling a story through interviews. 

And here he interviews everyone from Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state-run Russia Today (which many high-profile American leftist journalist still appear on, for some reason) to former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, a genuine useful idiot.

“Agent of Chaos” shouldn’t be essential viewing, but it is because we still can’t collectively understand that this is a thing that happened and somehow continues to happen. So watch it and learn how “fake news” is a real thing, just not the kind Trump tweets about. Watch it and learn how interconnected Trump’s business dealings are with the foreign nation he inexplicably still praises. Jimmy Carter sold his goddamn peanut farm so there wouldn’t be an appearance of a conflict of interest, just in case he was in the pocket of Big Peanut.

But above all, watch it and think about what forces are driving division and what those goals are. After that, vote. Ohio is now a dead heat, so we’ll definitely see some of what you watch here playing out in the weeks ahead.

“Agents of Chaos”

Now streaming on HBO Max

4 stars out of 5