Watching Jack Bryan’s explosive documentary “Active Measures,” about Russia’s espionage program and the effect it had on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, could be likened to watching a 21st century version of Watergate.
The film, debuting at Hot Docs film festival in Toronto Monday, features archival footage and a bevy of interviews with key Washington figures including former CIA director James Woolsey, former United States Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, former F.B.I. special agent Clint Watts, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Via these interviews “Active Measures” constructs a powerful argument as to how Soviet modern warfare tactics – “active measures” — shifted the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and weakened Western democracy. The film also meticulously documents Trump’s problematic financial relationship with the Russian oligarchy that began decades ago.
“Russians have a particular type of mark who they go after,” explains one of the film’s interview subjects, senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “They go after somebody who has business resources, perhaps some shady morals so they are amenable to bribery or perhaps are in a difficult financial situation and (someone who) has political connections or aspirations. I’ve just described Donald Trump. He was the perfect mark for the Russians.”
Talking heads also point to New York’s Trump Tower as a “money laundering paradise” full of shell companies. Watts says that by Russia using cheaper tactics than traditional warfare – i.e. — propaganda, media manipulation and funding extremist groups – they were able to divide the U.S. in 2016. “By dividing a nation we can’t protect ourselves from threats within or without,” says Watts.
While Bryan as well as the docu’s producers, Marley Clements and Laura DuBois, are looking forward to the film’s HotDocs premiere, they are also aware that the movie’s subject matter could lead to personal safety issues, which is why the trio has hired a security team and are “watching what they drink.”
Why did you decide to make this film?
Bryan: This story is too big for one news article. So I really felt that people needed a (film) where they could sit down, watch from beginning to end and realize that this documentary is not about how evil Trump is. No. This was an operation. (Trump) had a problem with in his life and guys (from Russia) came in and solved it for him.” (Bryan is referring to Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1991.)
When did you start filming?
Bryan: We started the day after James Comey was fired in May 2017 until September 2017.
How did you fund the film?
DuBois: All of the money came from friends and family. We were really lucky that we had people who supported us and believed in what we were doing.
There is a lot of information packed into this documentary. Did you ever consider making it into a series?
Clements: Constantly. But when we finally decided to make it into a traditional feature doc we thought that maybe we can use cut scenes or stories for a future series or spinoff because there are so many parts of this that we really didn’t get to go into.
You interviewed a lot of key Washington figures including Hillary Clinton and John McCain. How did you convince them take part in the film?
Clements: We made sure to get as many diplomats and academics in the fold as we could to start out with because it felt to us when we made these bigger asks, like Hillary and John, they would feel much more comfortable that the people that they were in the trenches with were backing them up. It wasn’t just them going in by themselves.
What surprised you the most while making this film?
Byran: On the Trump side it was how far back (his relationship with Russia) went. On the Putin side, I was surprised at how broad the operation in 2016 was.
Did you reach out to Trump for an interview?
Bryan: No, but it was a serious point of consideration. But in the end we really didn’t want anybody on (his team) knowing what we were doing. We were a little nervous. Early on we had some threatening phone calls. So we decided to not tell anyone that we didn’t have to tell. Also to have someone (in the film) who I thought was going to lie and then go back and explain why he lied felt like a waste time.
What are you hoping audiences will take away from the film?
Bryan: My goal is to put it out there and really have people understand what happened. I hope that if people understand what happened they will use that to empower themselves and their decision-making. I also hope that there will be a lower tolerance for corruption and election meddling. In the long run I absolutely hope that we keep Vladimir Putin in check not just for what he’s doing to America and to Europe, but also what he’s doing to the Russian people.
Are you scared to release the film?
Bryan: We’re nervous but you kind of have to get past that very quickly. Listen, is it possible that a Russian mobster or Vladimir Putin will take offense and kill me? I guess it’s possible but it’s also unlikely. If it does happen though there are a whole lot worse things to die for.