“We have been attacked. We are at War,” says Morgan Freeman in a video posted last week by a new organization called the Committee to Investigate Russia, making the most of his incredible voice. Founded by director, actor, and liberal activist Rob Reiner, the organization is calling for an investigation of Vladimir Putin’s government, suggesting strongly that the results of the 2016 election were the Kremlin’s doing. Despite his organization’s implicit focus on the 45th president, Reiner is intent on presenting his work as a bipartisan coalition staring down a foreign power, to which end he has been joined on the Committee’s advisory board by Republicans including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and George W. Bush’s onetime speechwriter David Frum.
“Imagine this movie script,” Freeman continues: “A former KGB spy, angry at the collapse of his motherland, plots a course for revenge. Taking advantage of the chaos, he works his way through the ranks of a post-Soviet Russia and becomes president. He establishes an authoritarian regime, then sets his sights on his sworn enemy: the United States. And like the true KGB spy he is, he secretly uses cyber warfare to attack democracies around the world. Using social media to spread propaganda and false information, he convinces people in democratic societies to distrust their media, their political processes, even their neighbors. And he wins.”
Having laid out his narrative, the actor pauses for the coup de grace: “Vladimir Putin is that spy. And this is no movie script.”
Perhaps, but it certainly reads like a film script, and not a particularly interesting or original one at that. Reiner’s Russia bears a marked similarity to the one that’s appeared in Hollywood films since the Cold War, centering on hidden machinations and high-tech spycraft. This is not to say that the Russian government didn’t attempt to meddle in our election –- there is very good evidence that it did -– but Reiner’s narrative does little to explain either Russia’s complex relationship with the West or the 2016 election. It relies on the time-tested Hollywood technique of personalizing history, ignoring the political, economic, and social realities of post-Soviet history in favor of a wholly speculative narrative set within the head of a single man, Vladimir Putin. Instead of providing an account of how we got to where we are, a multivalent and dynamic process involving countless international figures, the Committee invites us to take part in a shared fantasy, a sort of facile amalgam of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Rocky IV.”
Having spent considerable time in Putin’s Russia, I found Reiner’s rhetoric eerily familiar. I lived in the country throughout 2014, arriving not long after the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine changed Russia’s posture towards the West. While the Kremlin intended the 2014 Sochi Olympics to mark the country’s return to the global community, Putin incorrectly interpreted the chaos in Ukraine as an American-led plot to undermine a resurgent Russia. The state-run media peddled this narrative hard, using a now-familiar blend of fact, misrepresentation, and outright falsity. Yet what these narratives elided was equally notable as what they contained: There was little mention of Ukraine itself, of its actual conditions or the agency of its citizens. Much as in Reiner’s all too clean story of the 2016 election, the messy actualities of domestic politics were exorcised, projected onto a frightening foreign body.
It’s worth questioning the purpose of the Committee’s veneer of bipartisanship. Reiner made a series of television appearances, including one of on CNN, recounted in The Daily Beast, accompanied by David Frum, who, both as Bush’s speechwriter and afterwards, was a prominent advocate of the unconscionable, disastrous Iraq War. Of his new comrade, Reiner said, “When it comes to our country being attacked, it would never cross my mind that I wouldn’t be sitting next to him. It’s only odd that I’m sitting next to him because the country is so partisan right now.” Then he added, “This is about America and we’re all patriots.”
If one is trying to present oneself as a fearless opponent of “propaganda and false information,” George W. Bush’s speechwriter is a rather dubious wingman. What was the lead up to the Iraq War, after all, if not a sustained campaign of mendacity? The creator of the phrase “Axis of Evil,” Frum later admitted that the term was the result of his being asked by an unnamed colleague in the Bush administration, “Can you sum up in a sentence or two our best case for going after Iraq?” He remained a prominent advocate for it after leaving the White House in 2002. Incredibly, Reiner’s upcoming film, “Shock and Awe,” deals with the Iraq War, particularly the Bush administration’s fraudulent claims of WMDs. He seems to have drawn remarkably weak conclusions from the project.
The choice speaks to the ultimate vacuity of Reiner’s project. David Frum may have contributed substantially to one of the great humanitarian disasters of our time, causing incalculable damage and tremendous human suffering, but at least he is a Patriot. Under this logic, the problem with Trump is not the harm he stands to inflict upon millions of people the world over, but disloyalty. It’s a tack that Frum’s allies in the Bush administration took, using patriotism as a cudgel against the war’s opponents. It’s also a favored technique of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
I’m going to give Rob Reiner the benefit of the doubt and assume that he understands this, and is attempting to use recycled Cold War tropes and the language of patriotism to dislodge enough of Trump’s base to genuinely undermine him. The problem with this strategy, besides a certain fundamental cynicism, is that it won’t work. Donald Trump has many flaws, but a lack of nationalist zeal is not among them. His base understands this and reacts accordingly, which is why the Russia investigation has made little impact on the right, Putin’s exotic villainy notwithstanding. Trotting out David Frum to play through the greatest hits of Bush-era jingoism won’t change this. In addition, it also may not be the wisest move to unite our embittered parties behind a new Cold War –- especially at a point when the presidency is held by a man whose defining traits are viciousness and a bottomless hunger for glory.
Instead of casting their gaze entirely overseas, Reiner’s fellow liberals would do better to investigate the concrete realities that spawned Trump. They should look at America’s past and present, and its often bleak-looking future. They should consider the reasons why, despite running against the least popular presidential candidate of all time, Hillary Clinton was unable to win enough votes to defeat him. These conversations may not be easy or pleasant, but they will ultimately have vastly more potential to engender real change than simply watching Reiner’s Russia thriller.
That movie, frankly, looks pretty bad.
Daniel Witkin is the Forward’s Arts and Culture Intern. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @dzwitkin