“Active Measures” could hardly be more perfectly timed. It’s a documentary that digs into the relationship between Donald Trump and the powers of Russia, and while it’s not as if the film comes up with some smoking gun that Robert Mueller hasn’t yet, it fills in the Trump-Russia connection in a dogged, rigorously reported, eyebrow-raising way.
The movie is a follow-the-money exposé, and the director, Jack Bryan, lays out the roadmap of cash by making bracing and detailed connections between all the forces at work: the snaky leader-thug Vladimir Putin; the oligarchs he placed under his thumb (except for those who wouldn’t cooperate — he got rid of them); the Russian mobsters who are enmeshed in the workings of the Putin government; and Trump himself. “Active measures” is a phrase used in Russia to describe political warfare by the security services to influence the course of world events, but the movie says that if you want to understand the collusion between Trump and Russia, don’t focus on the 2016 election. The collusion goes back decades, and that’s its real meaning.
Flush with the likes of John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and John Dean (even the liberal faithful may be surprised at how galvanizing it is to hear Clinton’s insights), the movie kicks off with a fascinating portrait of Putin’s rise to power, complete with some great early photographs of him in which he looks like Illya Kuryakin crossed with Alex from “A Clockwork Orange.” (The glare is killer.)
But we already know about Putin — the former head of the FSB, elected to the presidency in the wake of the 1999 terrorist bombing of four Russian apartment buildings that many believe to have been an inside job. (The explosives were of a kind used exclusively by the KGB.) Once Putin assumed power, government critics, including a number of the country’s top journalists, began to turn up dead, and it’s no surprise to hear about Putin’s links with organized crime. But to the extent that “Active Measures” focuses on a kind of Russian mob mentality, it is not, primarily, about murder or the destruction of free speech. It’s about money laundering.
Russia’s preeminent crime boss, a human grizzly bear named Semion Mogilevich, is said to be worth $10 billion, and he was the first Russian to figure out how to launder money on a mass scale. That meant interfacing with the West. Trump Tower, which opened in 1983, was one of the first buildings in New York where shell companies could buy and sell condos without identifying themselves, and it became what Craig Unger of Vanity Fair, in the movie, calls “a money-laundering paradise.” Russian mobsters, such as David Bogatin, began to deal with Trump the year after Trump Tower opened. A little later, the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City was supposed to become Trump’s flagship, but it was a famous debacle that left him in ruins. Apart from its failure as a business, it was charged with violating money-laundering statutes.
Trump, famously, was up to his eyeballs in debt, and since he’d filed for bankruptcy half a dozen times, American banks wanted nothing to do with him. All those loans had been his financial Viagra; now they’d dried up. But that’s what made him the perfect mark for the Russians. According to the movie, Trump would never have found his way back had it not been for the flow of cash from the Russian underworld.
There are now 30 Trump Towers all over the world, and added together, they contain thousands of condominiums owned by shell companies. According to Unger, a $5 million condo could change hands three or four times a year and — voilà! — you’ve laundered $20 million. That, in essence, is Trump’s business. Not to mention characters like the Russian oligarch Dimitry Rybolovlev, who bought a property from Trump for $95 million, not long after the 2008 real-estate crash, and never pretended to use it. It was a favor — a way of infusing cash into Trump’s pockets.
This is all part of the financial scuttlebutt that has followed Trump around for years, but “Active Measures” names the names and fills in the flowchart of Trump’s corruption with gripping authority. Of course, none of this proves that Trump colluded with Russia in any political sense. But coming just days after the conviction of Paul Manafort, it’s edifying, in “Active Measures,” to get a close-up portrait of how Manafort became the lackey of Putin’s Ukrainian puppet president Viktor Yanukovych. He also went to work for Dimitry Firtash, a Ukranian oligarch who was in bed with the Mob (together, Firtish and his criminal connections siphoned off billions of dollars of gas money), as well as a direct associate of Putin’s.
“Active Measures” cites a key proposition of the Christopher Steele dossier: that the Russians basically turned Donald Trump five years ago. The movie can’t prove this, but it provides a juicy piece of circumstantial evidence when it shows us that Trump, partying in Moscow during the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant (the time when the pee-pee tape, if it exists, was made), left the city after just two-and-a-half days to attend Billy Graham’s 95th birthday bash. Trump’s presidential aspiration was all over that move. (God knows, it wasn’t as good a party.)
The rest of “Active Measures” is devoted to filling in Russia’s fake-news propaganda efforts (something it does a thorough job of, though not nearly as deep a one as that found in the chilling, yet-to-be-released documentary “Our New President”), and to the Manchurian Blowhard conjecture that many of us now indulge in on a daily basis, based on the following facts: that Trump, in pushing for the breakup of NATO, has openly pimped for one of the cornerstones of Putin’s wreck-the-West strategy; that at the Republican Convention, language supporting the independence of Ukraine was excised from the party platform at Trump’s request (something that still shocks John McCain); and, of course, the outrageous daily evidence of Trump’s clear and persistent man-crush on Putin. Arriving on the heels of this week’s verdicts, “Active Measures” plays as a heady warm-up to whatever’s coming next. We don’t have the big picture — yet — but this movie does an expert job of connecting more than a few of the dots.