It has to rank as one of Donald Trump’s most shocking statements — which is really saying something. Asked by the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly how he could respect Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom O’Reilly characterized as a “killer,” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. Boy, you think our country’s so innocent?” Over the last year, Trump has presented himself as a racist, a bully, a manhandler of women, a mocker of the disabled, and a loony-tunes conspiracy theorist. But whoever thought he’d come off sounding like the second coming of Noam Chomsky? The notion that the United States government routinely engages in “killer” behavior commensurate with that of what Russia does is, of course, a left-wing idea. (Just ask Oliver Stone, another Putin apologist who should know better.) But Trump put a new spin on it: Whatever the motivation (his desire to tilt the axis of global power against China? burying those rumored water-sports videos?), he was so intent to claim that his new BFF Vladimir is, you know … not so bad that he was willing to hijack 50 years of radical academic moral relativism by reducing it to a Trump sound bite.
All of which makes me wish that Trump would sit down and watch “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov.” It’s a peek into how the Russian state actually operates, and though it raises more questions than it answers, it leaves you with a shuddering chill. The central figure, Oleg Sentsov, is a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker known for his 2011 movie “Gamer.” In Russia, it made him a directorial star, but during the 2014 Crimean crisis he became part of the AutoMaiden movement, devoted to keeping Ukraine — and, specifically, Crimea — independent of Russia. He delivered food and supplies to Ukrainian servicemen, but on May 11, 2014, he was arrested and charged with organizing a terrorist cell, plotting terrorist attacks, and trafficking in illegal arms. He was held indefinitely and is now serving a 20-year prison sentence in Siberia. (The movie ends with clips of that Siberian prison. Have you ever seen Siberia? It looks like … Siberia.)
We’re shown footage of Sentsov in TV interviews during his moment of indie-film fame and then, a few years later, speaking from behind bars in the courtroom (yes, there’s a jail cell in court). Tall and husky, with dark cropped hair, popping eyes, and a grin of goofy optimism, he’s the father of two teenagers, and if you were looking for someone to play him in a movie, it might be Bradley Cooper; he has that kind of rubbery resilience. A number of noted directors — Wim Wenders, Agnieszka Holland — show up to testify to his status as a filmmaker.
In “The Trial,” Sentsov embraces his role as a political prisoner, yet the movie reveals what the stakes are: When he talks to his daughter on the phone, we see the price paid by any dissident — not just the personal agony of incarceration, but the ripped bonds of family. Sentsov was subjected to torture in prison, all to produce a confession to activities that never happened. (He didn’t confess.) The reason “The Trial” is a valuable document, even though it’s not an especially good movie, goes right back to Putin. It was Sentsov’s status as an art-house celebrity that made him a target in Russia. The regime arrested many “terrorists,” but he was held up as an example to the elite, intellectual class. The message was: If we can do this to him, we can do it you. The real terrorism came from the government, a way of driving fear into those who might speak out.
Russia swims in a daily ice bath of fake news (and real-news clampdown), which is why documentaries have been some of the only vehicles for revealing Vladimir Putin’s thug tactics. Ten years ago, the barely seen film “Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File” was the first inquiry to amass serious data suggesting that what Bill O’Reilly said about Putin is true. In “The Trial,” we see extended clips of Putin addressing the Sentsov case (a member of the Russian Parliament bows and scrapes before Putin so nervously it’s like seeing an outtake from “The Godfather, Part II”), but Putin, in public, is no glowering fascist. He comes off as impeccably civilized and almost geekishly seductive. He makes you want to be his friend. That, of course, is his version of smoke and mirrors.
Directed and shot by Askold Kurov, a Russian filmmaker as brave as his subject, “The Trial” is a thrown-together movie that doesn’t have much of an arc. It’s 75 minutes long, and to be brutally honest, I would have been just as happy watching Sentsov’s story compressed into a “60 Minutes” segment. Yet whatever its flaws, a movie like this one is necessary. It speaks the truth about the Russian regime — the truth that’s buried by Putin, and now buried by our own president, who only dreams that he could do the same thing to his enemies. More than ever, global film culture needs every documentary that lets you stare into the face of oppression with eyes wide open.