The title sequence of HBO’s Agents of Chaos opens with the warbling clarinet glissando of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” With the title cards reintroducing the overworn images of the 2016 campaign, overlaid with iconography from Soviet propaganda, the rhapsody rockets into a patriotic tune. A ham-fisted wink from the documentarians, the audience’s expectations are set—our marching orders are to understand Russian interference with the election. But as the chaos in the title suggests, mirroring the way the Gershwin splinters off into a shredded guitar solo within the last few bars of introductory sequence, this subject resists straight lines.
In a political economy that feasts on conspiracy theories, directors Alex Gibney and Javier Alberto attempt to harness the pull of conspiracy while working in the business of verifying or dispelling them. One aspect of their 4-part documentary succeeds in this light, as Agents of Chaos Part 1 nobly tries to thread the needle for the audience on the topic of Russian trolls on social media: how they work, who runs them, the substance of their operations. Focusing on this facet of the Russian assistance for Trump’s victory feels more manageable—a simple breadcrumb operation for the viewer to slowly walk from point to point. Swinging from the topic of trolls to larger Internet sabotage, the film then begins to explain away the hacks for non-digital natives. The usual graphics follow for cyber tutorials. While mildly charmed by the typical neon-green-dots-against-a-black-screen and beep boop sounds à la Grimes song, I started to wonder where the disclosures promised in the promotion would materialize. This would be a question I would, unfortunately, keep asking myself.
For a documentary that insinuates in its themes, symbols, and tone a march towards a major political revelation, the film often felt like a drunken amble or recollection of events after a blackout. The usual suspects were of course involved, but the order, timing, and exact influence of each player couldn’t firmly be accounted for within the larger narrative. There is no doubt to me that Russian interference either by cyberattack and/or through coordinated social media trolling impacted American public opinion and subsequent election results. The President’s personal business deals and his entourage’s suspicious foreign contacts fall into the same category: disappointing but not surprising. Because of this, one of the documentary’s key failures was its inability to demonstrate the extent to which each covered topic shifted Trump’s political fortunes. With the weight of each skullduggerous act unclear, the documentary unspooled like an uneasy timeline reel, laden with promises of payoffs it couldn’t achieve.
The question of format bubbled up for me again an hour into Part 2. There’s a thriving YouTube market for decoding the long arc of events in explanation videos, but a blue chip documentary should exceed a 101 course’s objectives—let alone a documentary funded by HBO and by the creators of masterpieces such as Going Clear and The Inventor. In a way, Agents of Chaos scrutinized itself through the voice of one of its own experts, Camille Francois, a cyber conflict researcher, who remarked on the efficacy of trolling as a remarkable “means of controlling narrative.” Documentarians, like photographers, succeed in creating a compelling piece of art through strategic framing. The underlying issue of Agents of Chaos is that the ecosystem that Alex Gibney inspects lacks the sealed systems that his previous subjects possessed within the Church of Scientology and Elizabeth Holmes’s Theranos. Instead, Trump’s presidency rages onward with impunity. With the sheer amount of entropy pouring out of the story in real time, Gibney’s best attempts to circumscribe boundaries on an ongoing narrative feels foolhardy. In placing the frame of the documentary in the most apt places that he could find, the viewer can sense the spillage of the narrative from out the other sides. If trolls are to blame, what about the social media platform’s accountability? The individual citizens? Gibney ends up pantomiming Francois’s warned critique of framing, but at the same, is set up for a task doomed to fail by the story’s sheer kinetic energy.
There are reasons to sit down and carefully watch Agents of Chaos. A refresher course on all dubious international activities starting from 2014 Crimean Crisis onward never hurt anyone for civic responsibility’s sake. But an argument to reach for this documentary for a highlight reel of Russian/Trump crimes seems weak—grab a newspaper. A similar disappointment echoed in the introductory Gershwin. For a tradition like jazz, which hinges on the repeated arrangement of chords, melodies, and rhythms emphasizing the beat, I wanted to feel that same finesse in the arrangement of its themes, symbols, and tone. Instead, I found it discordant. This documentary mirrored something faded and overwhelmed, a chopped-and-screwed beat. Something that oozes a slowed tempo, then speeds up and stops—the sensation of banana peel slipping from point to point—suits this film. Like the heady codeine high that inspired chopped-and-screwed, Gibney may have been reaching for an ecstatic revelation, but instead emphasized the dark blanks of night better forgotten.
Agents of Chaos airs in two parts starting HBO Wednesday, September 23rd and concluding Thursday, September 24th.
Katherine Smith is a writer at Paste Magazine and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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