Active Measures


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Active Measures
"Active Measures effectively arranges and links pieces of material but has a habit of ignoring complexities when they make its conclusions less straightforward, and doesn't show a great deal of insight."

Electoral interference. Fake news. Trolls deliberately distorting the perceptions of internet users and scandalous goings-on at Cambridge Analytica. We've all heard the stories. Active Measures ties it all together and lays it at the feet of Vladimir Putin. But how seriously should we take this documentary? On the one hand, you could reach many of the same conclusions if you spent a few hours doing casual online research - there's a striking lack of depth to what is presented as revelation. On the other, the selectiveness of it and the way it's edited together gives it many of the characteristics of propaganda itself.

We begin with Putin himself. There is discussion of his character, his rise to power, his ambitions. One of the speakers is Hillary Clinton, immediately giving the film a certain weight. But there's a problem: the focus is on what Putin was like 30 years ago, with no accounting for the possibility that his aims or priorities may have changed since and no acknowledgement of the fact that people's psychology generally shifts as they age. Whilst this may seem like a small thing, it's indicative of the kind of simplistic thinking that makes it easy to jump to conclusions without fully appreciating the complexities of a situation. Active Measures effectively arranges and links pieces of material but has a habit of ignoring complexities when they make its conclusions less straightforward, and doesn't show a great deal of insight.

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If you're simply looking for an overview of the ways the internet can be used for political manipulation or the ways that significant Russian players have been connected with Donald Trump's regime, this is adequate in as far as it goes. At least 80% or what it has to report is well substantiated elsewhere. It's not shy of linking in the likes of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, all too often left out of such narratives because of the discomfort they create for some of those who initially believed they could do no wrong. There is, however, a curious tendency to skim over or simplify some episodes where the far right is concerned. We see the marchers in Charlottesvllle and there is discussion of how racism can be exploited to whip up fear and thereby control populations, yet when it comes to reflections on Ukraine, the protests in Maidan are airbrushed as being all about liberal good guys (as, indeed, was the case in 2015 US documentary Winter On Fire), ignoring the awkward presence of far right activists too. When it comes to the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, the facts are stretched so far to fit the argument that one fears something might snap.

Is this just a translation issue? Americans and Europeans do politics differently, after all - but there are plenty of better US-made films out there. These weaknesses are a shame because the film's central case is a strong one and important. Excising 20 minutes or so would make it more convincing. It's a timely piece of work and one wonders if it suffered from being rushed. An impressive set of interviewees and an accessible style mean it does have value, it simply needs to be watched with caution, not swallowed whole.

Reviewed on: 24 Dec 2018
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A documentary arguing that Russia has interfered in international politics through the provision of dark money, manipulation of social media and direct influence over politicians.

Director: Jack Bryan

Writer: Jack Bryan, Marley Clements

Year: 2018

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

Putin's Witnesses