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The 2020 Election Is Around the Corner—But TV Is Still Trying to Make Sense of the Last One

The Comey Rule is not supposed to be funny. The real events it dramatizes, which span James Comey’s fraught tenure as FBI Director, are certainly no joke. And yet, at times, the two-part Showtime series had me laughing so uncontrollably I had to press pause.

In one such scene, set during the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election, two Russian operatives rendezvous at the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall to discuss their social-media propaganda campaign. “Today I beta-tested an article on Twitter claiming Hillary had AIDS,” Victor Podobnyy tells Igor Sporyshev. “300,000 likes. 300,000! On Facebook alone we could reach 100 mil—” He pauses to let a cute American family pass, their two daughters apparently giddy from a day of patriotic tourism. “We could reach 100 million voters, maybe more.” It’s like listening to Boris Badenov read aloud from a Wikipedia entry on Russian election meddling.

Like all the characters in the docudrama, an adaptation of Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty that will air on Sept. 27 and 28, Podobnyy and Sporyshev are real people. But you wouldn’t know it from the way the script caricatures them. This isn’t just a problem for Comey’s cartoon villains; every character speaks in the voice of the Mueller report and embodies exactly one personality trait in this morality play starring everyman Jim Comey (played by a muted Jeff Daniels). Sally Yates (a lively but underutilized Holly Hunter) stands for integrity. Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy from Halt and Catch Fire) is a cautionary tale of professional jealousy. In trying to demystify complex events—events that influenced Donald Trump’s election and impeachment—writer Billy Ray (Richard Jewell) errs toward oversimplification. The good news is, the miniseries isn’t even TV’s best effort this week to explain what happened four years ago in advance of Election Day 2020.

In 'Agents of Chaos,' the view from Moscow

In 'Agents of Chaos,' the view from Moscow

HBO

Airing on two consecutive nights beginning Sept. 23, HBO’s Agents of Chaos resists the temptation to turn American politics, surreal as they can be, into mustache-twirling melodrama. The series from documentary institution Alex Gibney (Going Clear, The Inventor) dissects the much-debated but still poorly understood topic of Russian election meddling in all its intricacy—and when the filmmaker hits a wall with easily available information, he investigates. Crucially, he doesn’t hide his confusion. Narration has gone a bit out of style for documentaries; blame Michael Moore. But Gibney (who shares directing credits on the second episode with Javier Alberto Botero) uses it to great effect, talking viewers through his own search for clarity and making his process transparent enough to preempt some of the accusations of media bias that are inevitable in the current political climate.

Chaos navigates through half a decade of sound and fury, avoiding the hysterical, counterproductive monologues of cable news to calmly pick apart frequently conflated aspects of the story that turn out to be fairly distinct. It makes sure we understand, for instance, that there’s a difference between the state-sponsored Russian hackers operating under the auspices of military intelligence and the Russian trolls hired to churn out fake news, partisan memes and other propaganda for the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which is technically a private firm. In a lively yet methodical exploration of the latter organization, Gibney digs into the agency’s origins during the Ukraine conflict of 2013; its funder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and crony of Vladimir Putin; the multi-step process it arrived at to give its fabrications the appearance of legitimacy; and the unfortunate discovery that social media is so optimized to reinforce confirmation bias that the agency could get away with promoting contradictory falsehoods to users on opposite sides of a political issue.

Gibney gets access to some of the biggest names surrounding the Russia story in the U.S., from Mueller investigation lead prosecutor Andrew Weissmann and former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe to Celeste Wallander, the former Senior Director for Russia/Eurasia on the National Security Council, who goes so far as to assert her belief that Putin personally ordered the Hillary Clinton hack. He gets key Trump associates to go on the record—not just guys like Carter Page, who may never learn to stop talking to reporters despite how poorly he comes off every time, but also Felix Sater, the Russian-born mobster turned FBI informant who has been cited as the link between the Trump Organization and organized crime. When it comes to real estate in Russia, Sater explains, “If you try to work legitimately, you will fail.” Gibney also makes a point of including Russia-based voices and election-interference skeptics. (Russian State News Agency Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan fits both descriptions.) In the IRA segment, we meet the first journalist to report on the so-called “troll factory” and a Russian blogger who advised its staff, among others.

'Agents of Chaos' quotes an email from Felix Sater

'Agents of Chaos' quotes an email from Felix Sater

HBO

Other deep dives include WikiLeaks, the Republican-primary origins of the sensational Steele dossier and an account of how false equivalency drove the news media’s obsessive coverage of the Clinton emails. Gibney gets granular on the meaning of words that are often repeated but rarely defined to anyone’s satisfaction, like “collusion” and “hacking” (which seems simple enough until you’re faced with all the degrees of difference between merely breaching the security of a voting system and full-on tampering with votes). He even probes why Page, Paul Manafort and so many other seemingly dim bulbs always seem to wind up at the center of sophisticated espionage plots (in short, because foreign operatives see them coming an ocean away).

Instead of leaving the viewer to put together the pieces of so many interlocking, still-developing stories, like so many front-page newspaper articles and episodes of The Rachel Maddow Show, Chaos takes advantage of its role as a less-rushed, second draft of history by adding synthesis. In a final segment, “Outrage Machines,” Gibney raises the vital question of why such a supposedly strong democracy turned out to be so vulnerable to amateur propagandists in the first place. If the axis of Russian intelligence, trolls and WikiLeaks created a “three-ring circus,” he suggests, then a politically polarized U.S. provided the tent. “You can read Russia’s intervention in our elections in 2016 as them against us,” On Tyranny author Timothy Snyder tells Gibney. “But you can also look at Russia and say, ‘Aha, that’s where we might be going.’ When we look at Russia’s intervention, maybe it worked because we’re a little bit more like them than we think we are.”

In order to grasp the magnitude of our Russia problem, we must understand that it’s bigger than any one person—even when that person is the President of the United States. That can be difficult when American politics is so preoccupied with the participants as characters and partisans. Comey doubles down on that unfortunate tendency, inserting a bitter Rosenstein as the story’s unnecessary narrator and slavering over distracting tabloid items that Chaos barely touches on, like the Steele dossier’s salacious but unsubstantiated “pee tape” claims. Ray, the screenwriter, doesn’t seem interested in reaching viewers who don’t already hate the Trump Administration. He reduces the wonderful Irish actor Brendan Gleeson to delivering a one-note, sketch-comedy impression of Donald Trump as a toddler id, always on the verge of a tantrum. (A heavy-hearted Barack Obama is, meanwhile, portrayed by Kingsley Ben-Adir—a charming actor who’s approximately 20 years younger than Obama actually was in 2016.) Comey’s infamous one-on-one dinner with the President might as well be an endless bad date.

Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson in 'The Comey Rule'

Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson in 'The Comey Rule'

Showtime

As a result, the Showtime series feels like an extended recap of what happened on the last episode of America Fights to Maintain Its Sovereignty, designed to rev up Democrats for November rather than to deepen any viewer’s understanding of the Trump-Russia connection. (You could argue that, as a drama, Comey’s chief purpose is to entertain rather than inform. But by that metric, its dull think-piece monologues, expository dialogue and long scenes of people in suits arguing in boardrooms are even less successful.) Although, in addition to A Higher Loyalty, this telling apparently draws on interviews with insiders who are not the former FBI Director, a climactic scene in which the freshly fired leader delivers a farewell speech worthy of Dead Poets Society drives home its de facto message: hey, Jim Comey turned out to be a pretty stand-up guy after all!

If The Comey Rule reinforces existing cults of personality and adds fuel to the partisan fire, then Agents of Chaos dispels enough smoke to give viewers a clearer picture than most will have seen before of what our country is facing. It isn’t always artful. The reenactments can be silly. But as a work of investigative and explanatory journalism built to penetrate the same left-vs.-right media bubbles it laments, Gibney’s documentary is a revelation. As we await an election that will, in large part, be a referendum on 2016, the question that remains is whether it has arrived in time to make a difference.

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