Over the last year, we’ve grown used to thinking of “fake news” as a relatively recent phenomenon, one that has its roots in the talk-radio culture of the late ’80s. But when you see the revealing and impishly infuriating documentary “Our New President,” one of the opening-night movies of the Sundance Film Festival (it’s being presented in World Documentary), you get a heady lesson in how fake news really works — and how far back it stretches.
The movie, directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin (“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer”), is a compilation of archival clips from contemporary Russian television that presents the American political circus — in particular, the election and presidency of Donald Trump — as it’s been portrayed in the funhouse mirror of Russian media. What we see, in clip after clip, is an overheated and jarring mélange of conspiracy theory and authoritarian hero worship that makes your average Rush Limbaugh ranting session sound like a Bill Moyers seminar. Yet most of the “information” has been drawn out of the same well of paranoid fantasy that has helped to poison U.S. political discourse.
The Russian puppet news broadcasts are like an issue of The National Enquirer presented as the stone-cold truth: Hilary Clinton is a murderer! Who bumped off three or four of her enemies in 2016 alone! And who suffers from “retardation”! There was a government plot to assassinate Donald Trump on the day of his inauguration! The protesters at anti-Trump rallies are all paid actors! With health benefits! And on and on.
We’ve heard many of these theories, and others like them, before, going back to the quaint old days of the “murder” of Vincent Foster. In addition, the Russian media lionizes Donald Trump as a larger-than-life strong-man icon, just like Vladimir Putin. Trump, for a while, was sold in Russia the way he sells himself: as a sexy bold aristocrat-superstar who “cracked the rotten American system of elites.” Even his thumbs are cooed over.
In “Our New President,” we get to see how Russia’s all-fake-all-the-time news culture has co-opted much of the Russian populace. They believe these stories; they peddle them on YouTube. In this case, though, the nationalization of misinformation is a return to business as usual: the resurgence of Soviet-style propaganda, only now ratcheted up by the in-your-face, shut-down-your-mind aesthetic of tabloid news. It’s Pravda 5.0.
The relentless flow of manufactured scandal and over-the-top lies in “Our New President,” all packaged with “authentic” video footage and flash-cut techniques, is sometimes funny, and sometimes depressing (the film runs 77 minutes, and you wouldn’t want it to be a minute longer). But mostly it’s scary, because what it reveals is that fake-news culture is now an escalating global phenomenon, a tidal wave of untruth that’s growing and surging in power: in Europe, in the United States, and in the authoritarian regimes — like Russia’s — that perfected this virus in the first place. It’s a brave new world, but in many ways it’s an old world, a medieval cosmos of strong-man heroes, and evil spirits doing battle, and more and more of the masses of men and women reduced to brainwashed pawns. The message of “Our New President” is that you can rail against fake news all you want, but the sinister bottom line is that fake news is getting bigger by the day. What’s shrinking? Reality, and democracy.
In other words: It’s Vladimir Putin’s world, and we just live in it. Okay, that’s a major exaggeration. Yet watching “Our New President,” it’s easy to get caught up in the sickly sensation of Putin’s omnipotence. One of the ideas spread by Russian television is that Trump owed his victory to the Putin regime — a point, of course, that taps into one of the current fears of American liberals. So can you trust the liar bragging about his lies?
In “Our New President,” Putin is a darkly mesmerizing figure, because it’s more clear now than ever that his low-key ex-KGB silky-bruiser demeanor is a mask, and no one gets to peek at what’s on the other side of it. Even his cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, which makes him look like Bill Maher’s ruthless henchman cousin, has a double meaning. He seems to be saying, “I’m quietly amused,” but what he’s really amused by is that you’re caught up in his act. He’s stage-managing a user-friendly dictatorship.
The film chronicles how Putin remade the Russian media, gutting the nation’s one relatively free and objective news program, NTV, and consolidating state control over Russia 1, the nightly news show broadcast from a studio located in Ostankino Tower, the television-and-radio space needle built by the Soviet regime in 1967. (It’s the tallest free-standing building in Europe.) The show is hosted by a burly and rather fearsome meat puppet who barks out things like “Objectivity is a myth forced upon us.”
Yet the spread of what he calls “the propaganda of common sense” isn’t limited to Russia — or to the Russian hackers who spread all that fake news on Facebook during the election. (At one point we get a glimpse of them: a bunch of anonymous drones sitting in a room.) The international news channel RT (Russia Today) was launched in 2005, and it is now viewed by a nightly global audience of 700 million in 100 countries. Who shills for Russia Today, peddling lies and tabloid hokum? Roger Stone does — and so, as we see, does Larry King.
Donald Trump has proved to be such an unpredictable and divisive figure that even the Russian news media, where he’s presented as a pure product of Putin’s power, has had moments of turning on him. (There’s one funny and rather perceptive sequence in which a Russian broadcaster claims that Trump has a “mental issue,” revealed by the fact that when he’s sitting at a table, he compulsively reorganizes whatever’s in front him — papers, napkins, coasters — and we see a montage of him doing just that.) Yet the Russian citizenry has been hoodwinked into thinking of Trump as one of their own. And since that belief happens to dovetail with American liberal dogma on Trump, it’s enough to make you wonder, for a moment, where the fake news ends and the truth begins. Is your head spinning, just a little bit? Mission of fake news: accomplished.