How Does a Russian Troll Farm Work? This New HBO Documentary Reveals All

Alex Gibney’s two-part documentary ‘Agents of Chaos’ collates all of the evidence on how Russia is undermining American democracy, while Netflix’s ‘Enola Holmes’ is an enchanting family film

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Presidents Putin and Trump at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.
Presidents Putin and Trump at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019.Credit: Susan Walsh/AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

The Trump presidency has been such a dumpster fire that, for many Americans, getting to the end of it without a zombie apocalypse and Jeanine Pirro as a Supreme Court justice will taste like victory (assuming they haven’t already lost their sense of taste and smell, that is).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the political divide, Donald Trump could whip out his Kenyan birth certificate live on “Fox & Friends” while simultaneously offering photographic proof of his threesomes with the Falwells – and most of his supporters would still rather impale themselves on tiki torches than vote for Joe Biden in November.

Given this political chasm, is it possible to create a film, book or television series that might show Forever Trumpers the error of their ways and get these sons of Mitches to renounce their orange overlord? That was a rhetorical question, by the way.

Still, just because it’s impossible doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t at least try. Because in these unprecedented times, documentation actually becomes more important than ever, chronicling events that only a few short years ago would have been unthinkable – you know, like checking for a heat ray weapon to use on protesters outside the White House.

Maybe that’s why, in one of the many, many ironies of his presidency, Trump has managed to single-handedly revitalize art forms he clearly despises and has even less time for than any woman over the age of 35.

The publishing industry, for example, can’t chop down trees fast enough – thanks for that, folks; just what we needed with a climate denier in the White House – to cope with the demand for exposés of Trump and his coterie of criminals.

Then there are the documentarians – a word Trump couldn’t even pronounce, let alone spell – who are now no longer confined to the kitchen (or waitstaff) at swanky Hollywood parties. Instead, they’re the center of attention, being urged to shoot footage of the canary in the coal mine as it gasps its last breath.

Want to make a documentary about voter suppression among Native Americans? Here, take our money. You’ve developing a 10-part series about the first transgender mayor of Tank Town, U.S.A.? Financiers, please form an orderly line.

I’m talking specifically about documentarians like Alex Gibney. Right now, this 66-year-old filmmaker – probably best known for 2015’s “We Steal Secrets,” about WikiLeaks – has got his name on so many projects, Trump himself might be getting a little jealous.

There’s “Kingdom of Silence,” which explores the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia (premiering on Showtime, October 2). Then there’s “Totally Under Control,” a look at Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, which is set to be released in U.S. movie theaters next month – provided there are still some open to screen it, that is.

But first there’s “Agents of Chaos,” his four-hour, two-part HBO documentary that presents the past five years of bombshells about Trump’s alleged ties with Russia in a (large) nutshell.

If you’re wondering who on earth would want to sit through a recap of life in Trumplandia at a time when so many folks are feeling like Number Six in “The Prisoner,” you’re not alone. And it’s only fair to warn you that this documentary contains familiar terms that may make you damage your TV screen: words such as “private email server,” “collusion,” “lock her up” and “Jared Kushner.”

"Agents of Chaos" director Alex Gibney.Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

There’s also the not-insignificant detail that this sprawling documentary, centered specifically around Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. election, doesn’t really tell us anything new – unless you get all your news from Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, that is. And if that is the case, there’s more chance of you knitting a pink pussyhat than tuning in to HBO and watching this.

Master of Chaos v. Captain Chaos

The documentary splits neatly into two halves, which could easily have been titled “Vladimir Putin: Troll With It” and “Trump: All the President’s Mendacity.” Or, equally accurately, “Master of Chaos” and “Captain Chaos.”

It starts with Gibney, like a camera-shy Michael Moore, assuring us in voice-over that he won’t make us relive the entire 2016 election – and then proceeding to make us do pretty much exactly that.

He says his goal is to figure out “this Trump-Russia thing – what was that all about?” Unfortunately, though, this proves as easy to answer as “Who arranged the alphabet?”

For me, the first episode, which delves deep into Russia’s troll farms and their successful work in Ukraine and the United States from 2013 onward, is by far the most rewarding.

It details how a group of young Russians working out of an office in St. Petersburg managed to amplify the very worst messaging from both aisles of American politics, successfully playing left off against right. It’s remarkable to see the malign influence Russian-operated social media accounts like “Jenna Abrams,” “Black Matters US” and “ten_gop” achieved – though the Russians may have been bigging themselves up a little when they claimed to be responsible for securing 59 of Trump’s electoral college votes through their efforts.

Cybersecurity and disinformation researcher Camille Francois explains how Russian trolls became malignant influencers, in Alex Gibney's "Agents of Chaos."Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

Harvard historian Prof. Timothy Snyder sums it up perfectly in one of his many astute comments throughout: “What Russia did in 2016 was understand and take advantage of a new technical environment faster than anyone else.”

“Agents of Chaos” also looks at how, buoyed by its success spreading discontent among social media users, Moscow then added code to go with its memes.

The show delineates in stark detail Russian hacking campaigns on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign head John Podesta, led by the GRU (Russia’s equivalent of Military Intelligence) and its “Fancy Bear” unit, and the SVR (its answer to the CIA).

It also highlights how those hacked email dumps, often seemingly via willing stooges like WikiLeaks, always occurred at moments that benefited Trump – like the one that arrived a mere 29 minutes after the release of the infamous “Grab ’em by the pussy” tape in October 2016.

The second episode tries to do what Special Counsel Robert Mueller failed to do and fully connect the dots between Trump himself and Russia.

Frustratingly, there’s no smoking Kalashnikov here that will cause Mueller to pen a sequel to his Russia investigation report. There’s also no premiere of the notorious “pee tape,” which might have caused Americans to realize it’s not just Trump’s tawdry buildings that are golden. Then again, to paraphrase the man himself, Trump could probably urinate on a war veteran on Fifth Avenue and still not lose his base.

Given the show’s flaws, why is “Agents of Chaos” still so clearly worthy of four hours of your time? Easy: So that nobody can claim ignorance when Russia interferes in U.S. democracy once again this November, and in 2024, 2028 … (repeat to fade).

‘Enola Holmes’

In the same way you may find it hard to imagine anyone finding something new to say about the Trump-Russia affair, you may also be surprised to learn that a fresh spin has been found on the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Yet the makers of Netflix’s “Enola Holmes” have created a charming, witty family film by simply giving the great detective a younger sister (to be more precise, the book is actually an adaptation of a YA novel by Nancy Springer).

Millie Bobby Brown (“Stranger Things”) is the titular character, a homeschooled 16-year-old bumpkin in Victorian England who’s suddenly forced to solve a mystery when her mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter) goes missing.

Millie Bobby Brown as the title character in "Enola Holmes."Credit: Netflix /AP

Enola doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as shatter it into a million pieces, forever addressing the viewer with wisecracking remarks as she heads to London for a series of adventures that have little to do with Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation but are nonetheless enormous fun. And while a young-ish Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes do feature, they’re definitely playing second fiddle to their younger sister.

Henry Cavill as Sherlock Holomes, left, Sam Claflin as Mycroft Holmes and Millie Bobby Brown as their sister in "Enola Holmes."Credit: Alex Bailey/AP

My kids are at an age where they object to being called “kids,” so I don’t tend to watch many family movies these days (“Paddington 2” was probably the last one – so great to go out at the top). But with its imaginative storytelling and visual inventiveness, “Enola Holmes” comes highly recommended for youngsters looking for a sassy heroine to rival the likes of Alex Ryder and other male screen heroes.

“Agents of Chaos” is on Hot VOD, Yes VOD, Cellcom tv, Next TV and Sting TV on Thursday-Friday, and Yes Docu on Friday-Saturday at 10 P.M. It premieres on HBO in the United States on Wednesday-Thursday. “Enola Holmes” is on Netflix from Wednesday.

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