I saw The Dissident the same day a mob stormed the Capitol in the name of our current president — a person who has called any media that doesn’t speak well of him the “enemy of the people.” I could have checked out the latest Milla Jovovich/Paul W.S. Anderson collab, Monster Hunter, and got some escapist laughs. I could have seen the potentially pulp-trashy Hillary Swank movie, Fatale. I could’ve seen what all the Wonder Woman 1984 fuss was about. But, no. I bypassed all these comfort-food options at the Citadel Mall 16 to see the cold reality in Bryan Fogle’s The Dissident. It’s my fault.
You go see a movie about the murder of an outspoken journalist that the president would not only shy away from condemning but would continue to do business the person most likely responsible for the murder.
Financed by the Human Rights Foundation, The Dissident is a documentary that details the last days The Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, the resulting investigation and the slain journalist’s influence. At times, it plays out like a talking-head documentary, sprinkled with reenactments and voicemails detailing his relationships and passions. There are moments when it plays out like a high-tech geopolitical thriller, complete with a foreboding synth score and figurative insects battling over misinformation. It’s a good movie that has rightfully earned the praise heaped upon it.
As it begins, we meet a young Saudi dissident, Omar Abdulaziz. He laments that his actions have hurt his loved ones and may have been what got Khashoggi killed. We’re given a brief history of Khashoggi’s work and his criticisms of the Saudi government, particularly of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attitude toward free speech. Particular attention is given to Oct. 2, 2018 — the day Khashoggi visited the Saudi embassy in Turkey while his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, waited for him outside. He never returned. There are intriguing nuggets about Twitter’s omnipresence in Saudi Arabia and the prevalence of bots and trolls to combat Saudi criticism. There are scenes of real-life paranoia that rival a Jason Bourne film. The graphic descriptions of Khashoggi’s last minutes are gruesome and maddening. It’s an engaging movie, but what happened next stopped me dead in my tracks. That isn’t the fault of the film.
To be completely honest, when Trump popped up on the screen, I left the movie for a moment. When he was shown dodging questions and relaying BS answers, I could only think about the events of the last week. He worked with a man who likely had a journalist killed for essentially questioning authority. Could what happened there happen here?
At one point, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul is seen, referencing the Crown Prince: “Are we so blind to the malign influence of Saudi Arabia that we just give money and weapons to anybody, regardless of what they do? You can cut a dissident into pieces with a bone saw, and we’ll still give you weapons.”
Strong words like that might seem to be enough. But moments later, we find out that despite those powerful words from Paul, with the facts of Khashoggi’s killing known to the world, America’s arm sales to Saudi Arabia went through.
If there is an actual criticism I have of this film, it’s minor. As much as I enjoyed Fogel’s latest work, I still wince when dramatic edits, emotional music and those computer-generated flies and bees fight. It reminds me of things I’d see on a daytime tabloid TV show or a 24-hour news channel. It’s effective, but it still makes me feel like I’m being goaded rather than trusted to make my own decision. I understand we live in a cinematic superhero-influenced world where our short attention spans need constant rewards, but I just wish it weren’t so.
At this moment, The Dissident is playing in theaters and select streaming services. At one point, it looked like it may not even hit streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, despite being a Sundance hit. Perhaps that’s fitting, since silence and complicity are overriding themes in The Dissident.