How 'Putin's Revenge' became Trump's victory

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Vladimir Putin (Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Because of the election of Donald Trump, we’ve all been forced to become more knowledgeable in matters of domestic and foreign policy, in order to separate fact from Trumpian exaggeration. Given this, it would be understandable if you think you understand how and why the Russians meddled in the last election. A new Frontline airing Wednesday, Putin’s Revenge, gives us new contexts and a clearer path to the meddling. A two-part production whose second hour will air next week, Putin’s Revenge is an urgent, absorbing piece of filmmaking: I gobbled down both episodes quickly.

The organizing theory of this project is that Russian President Vladimir Putin formed a deep and abiding detestation of Hillary Clinton during her time as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, for what he saw as America’s — and specifically Clinton’s — interest in aiding pro-democracy forces working against Russia. Frontline demonstrates, with a clear, easy-to-follow timeline, how Putin and his minions resolved to gain the revenge of the show’s title by directing hackers and other disruptors to increase the already-existing confusion, doubt, and fear in the United States during the 2016 election. And while the film says Putin never dreamed that his chosen-favorite candidate — the easily-manipulated Trump — would actually become president, the Russian leader can now take some credit for Trump’s election, and Putin savors that victory today.

The first part of Putin’s Revenge provides a detailed sketch of Putin’s background and rise within the Russian government. From his start as a KGB agent to his selection as the man to succeed President Boris Yeltsin in 2000, Putin is shown to be a clever egotist who nursed what the Frontline narration terms “a lifetime of grievances.” Convinced that Yeltsin’s pro-democratic style would weaken Russia’s essential strength, Putin became a self-styled strongman, one who saw enemies at every turn, at home and abroad. Frontline says that he was convinced then-Secretary of State Clinton was heavily involved in fomenting anti-Putin protests during Russia’s 2011 elections — elections that became open to charges of vote rigging.

What goes unsaid by the narration — but is plain for the viewer to see — is that nearly everything ascribed to Putin’s character finds parallels in Donald Trump. In Trump, Putin recognized someone who shares his instinct for conspiracy theories and the exploitation of underlings. Their key difference is that Putin is much more sophisticated in his sense of history and knowledge of how government works. Putin’s Revenge is directed by Michael Kirk, and its production team includes many of the people who also made two other essential Frontlines, The Choice 2016 (the documentary that shrewdly pointed to the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner as the probable site of Trump’s resolve to run for president) and Bannon’s War. Putin’s Revenge uses interviews with former heads of the CIA and other U.S. government officials as well as Russian and American journalists to make its case.

During the second hour, airing Nov. 1, Julia Ioffe, a contributing editor to the Atlantic, makes a vivid point about Putin and those he enlisted to monkey with our election: “They didn’t expect Trump to win. They just thought they were going to bloody Clinton’s nose. They didn’t expect to break her neck.” Now we’re all going around with broken necks, wondering when — if — we’ll heal.

Putin’s Revenge premieres Oct. 25 on PBS. Check your local listings.

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