The Documentary That Flew Too Close To The Truth
Documentaries are hard. For one thing, reality is rarely cooperative. Real stories have too many characters; abandon plot threads with no resolution, too few climactic mano-a-mano fistfights, and punchy one-liners that are only thought of after the fact.
The easy way to get around this is to collect a bunch of experts on a topic, interview them, and cut together a series of close ups where they deliver their sound bites to an off screen interviewer. Bonus point if you can get one of them to chuckle and say, “All the interesting things I know I’m not allowed to tell you.”
But we want our documentaries to tell the truth, right? The whole truth, and nothing but? Isn’t that the idea?
I tracked down the film Active Measures after seeing multiple recommendations that it was the “definitive” account of the Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Donald Trump’s connection to it. To anyone who’s been following the news at least somewhat closely, there isn’t a whole lot new in the film, and let’s be honest, political news junkies are its target audience.
Active Measures certainly does cover the Russian interference in the 2016 election. And Donald Trump’s connection to it. And Russian interference in Ukrainian elections. Georgian elections. Estonian elections.
It tells the story of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, his government’s connections to Russian organized crime, and the illustrious career of one mob boss, Semion Mogilevich. And that’s just the first 10 minutes.
I think the people behind Active Measures wanted to be thorough. They didn’t want to be accused of simplifying or distorting the Truth by leaving things out. So they left everything in.
The result is a film that washes over you in a tsunami of names, dates, faces, murders, and fear. Nothing really sticks. I still couldn’t tell you who was on what side of the Ukrainian protests in 2014.
Afterwards, I thought back to another documentary that’s stuck with me ever since I saw it.
Icarus starts out as a sports documentary. Bryan Fogel, a filmmaker and amateur cyclist, wants to expose doping among bike racers. He starts filming himself as he prepares to ride in a race– first clean, and then the following year after he has been doping.
While trying to figure out how to safely pump himself full of performance enhancing drugs (and not get caught), Fogel meets Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who is the head of the Russian lab responsible for testing Olympic athletes for doping.
Well, not exactly.
Turns out the reason Dr. Rodchenkov knows so much about how athletes drug themselves is because he helps them do it. He is in charge of a program to provide almost all Russian Olympic athletes with performance enhancing drugs and protect them from getting caught.
As Dr. Rodchenkov helps Fogel with his plan to juice the amateur cycling race, the story about the Russian doping program breaks in the news. The film stops being just about sports and turns into Fogel trying to help his friend flee Russia and protect him from violent retaliation by Putin’s thugs.
Both Active Measures and Icarus end on a similar note: Vladimir Putin is trying to discredit the very idea of Truth, so he can create the reality he wants. Russian athletes are the best in the world. Do they cheat? Everybody cheats. Gold medals don’t lie. Hillary Clinton is a satanic child molester who wants to take your guns and your dog. That’s not true? Does it matter? Look at what they’re saying about Donald Trump. Equally ridiculous, right? And look who’s President.
I don’t know if there’s anything in Active Measures that isn’t true. There might be. So much information was coming at me, I didn’t have time to evaluate it. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was some bit of information that was at least debatable, it not an honest mistake. Would that make the whole film suspect?
I’m sure someone who’s skeptical would watch it searching for some reason to doubt the whole thing. Perhaps, in its effort to tell the whole story, it makes itself easier to discredit.
Icarus doesn’t tell the whole story– and it doesn’t try to. The fact that it has more time lets it linger on interesting side stories: Dr. Rodchenkov becomes a fascinating, charismatic character. Fogel marvels at the absurd lengths Russian athletes (and their doctors) went to cheat the system. It certainly makes a stronger impression than Active Measures.
Bryan Fogel got incredibly lucky as he was making Icarus: An amazing story appeared before him, and he was able to document it in real time. Active Measures has to make due with what it has. I wonder, though, if a single documentary can cover everything that happened. A doorstopper of a book might– but that would, again, only be read by political news junkies.
But I find that when the stakes get too high, and the conspiracy too big, seeing a small piece through one person’s eyes makes the rest come into sharper focus. This lets the audience relate more to the people involved, and doesn’t bombard them with information they will quickly forget.
Perhaps the best way to show people the Truth is not to let them stare directly at it.