It’s become common, if not cliché, for a critic reviewing a documentary about a turbulent real-world event to write something like, “It exerts the power of a true-life thriller!” Well, make no mistake: “The Dissident” does. Directed by Bryan Fogel, who in 2017 made the Oscar-winning “Icarus” (about the Russian doping of Olympic athletes), the movie is a full-blown investigation into the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian editor and Washington Post columnist whose gruesome murder, on Oct. 2, 2018, was in all likelihood conceived and ordered by the highest levels of the Saudi monarchy.
When it comes to edge-of-your-seat intrigue, this is a movie with just about everything. It’s got mystery and conspiracy coalescing around men of unfathomable power. It’s got inside-the-palace-walls homicidal backstabbing. It’s got a freedom-fighting martyr-hero, Khashoggi himself — a worldly and ebullient but increasingly lonely and isolated 60-year-old man who occupies a precarious middle ground between the Saudi regime, which for years he claimed loyalty to, and the freedom of the West, which he breathed in like oxygen. It has the shadow intrigue of cyber-warfare (including the hacking of Jeff Bezos’ cell phone). And at its sinister center, it has a murder carried out like a Mob hit. The more we learn about the details of the crime (and view the minutes leading up to it on surveillance footage), the more “The Dissident” exerts something like the can’t-look-away horror of a snuff film, albeit one in which we never actually see the ultimate deed.
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Yet as a documentary thriller of staggering relevance, “The Dissident” also prompted one additional thought. Watching this movie, with its urgent colliding themes of free speech, power, greed, technology, violence, and the increasingly global nature of government tyranny, I began to understand why the political conspiracy thriller has, for the most part, faded out as a form we can take seriously. Simply put: How can it compete? How can made-up tales of high-level treachery hold a candle to the scary realities on display in “The Dissident”?
The Khashoggi case, of course, has been amply reported, and the devotion with which international journalists turned up the heat on it started virtually the day that Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to process the paperwork necessary for his impending marriage. He never came back out. And since, by that point, he’d become an infamous thorn in the side of the Saudi monarchy, calling out its relatively new leader, the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, for his crackdowns on freedom of expression, almost anyone could connect the dots: that Khashoggi had been targeted by the Saudi regime for voicing forbidden criticisms.
For a while, the crime was covered up by a chain of denial that extended from the Saudis to the shameless oil-money kowtowing of President Trump. But Fogel, building on news reports, does his own deep dive into what happened and why. He talks to Istanbul police officials, who’d gotten hold of the audio recording of Khashoggi’s murder, and he shows us chilling — and massively incriminating — excerpts from the transcription of it. He identifies the men who carried out the crime, several of whom were recruited directly from Mohammad bin Salman’s personal security force. And he documents the terrifying way it all went down, from Khashoggi being slowly strangled (it took seven-and-a-half minutes) to the dismembering of his body by bone saw to the ordering of 70 pounds of meat from a local restaurant to cover up the smell of his body parts being burned.
Fogel also leads us through sidelong detours and connects the dots. The movie opens in Montreal, where Omar Abdulaziz, a 27-year-old associate of Khashoggi’s, is hiding out three months after the murder. He’s the dissident Saudi exile who showed Khashoggi the possibilities of fighting oppression through digital media, a tactic that may now be more necessary than ever, given the army of fake-news trolls — known, according to the film, as “flies” — that the Saudis use to crush information through Twitter.
We also get to know Khashoggi, who even when you followed the case remained a somewhat distant figure. In “The Dissident,” we see him in home-video footage as well as TV-news clips, and we take in his warmth, his gentle Teddy-bear fervor, and what one observer calls his “innocence.” By which he means: He had the quality of those who will never dare to part with their idealism. With his gray goatee and wire-rim glasses and balding pate and knowing twinkle, Khashoggi suggests Salman Rushie as played by Stacy Keach, and he’s a compelling and touching figure, because he never set out to be a radical. He was, in fact, an inside player in the Saudi monarchy, which meant that he knew how to play ball with them; his intent was to nudge the regime toward greater openness. (Variety owner Penske Media has an investment from the kingdom’s public investment fund.)
But all that changed when Mohammad bin Salman (the notorious MBS), with the benediction of his aging father, orchestrated a palace coup, arresting 11 Saudi princes and other members of the elite. MBS, handsome and opaque, with eyes so steady they’re beyond cold, emerges in the film as the Middle East’s answer to Vladimir Putin: a centralizer of power who will brook no dissent. He placated the people of Saudi Arabia by sprinkling them with surface freedoms (women’s right to drive, etc.), but he destroyed the greatest freedom of all: the right to say what you believe. As Khashoggi put it in the headline of one of his many Washington Post columns that enraged the Saudis, “Saudi Arabia Wasn’t Always This Repressive. Now It’s Unbearable.” The film suggests, rather ominously, that just as it was the Saudis who funded the crushing of the Arab Spring, it was also Saudi money that fueled the airing of Jeff Bezos’ marital scandal, all as a way to threaten the owner of The Washington Post.
Khashoggi left the country, seemingly for good, which meant abandoning his wife and children, which broke his heart. “The Dissident” catches us up in Khashoggi’s second act, as he meets and becomes engaged to Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish woman 20 years his junior. He desperately wanted to have a life, but to put it in movie terms (which “The Dissident” encourages), Khashoggi, writing editorials out in the open, had become a whistleblower. He felt compelled to articulate a philosophy that would, if put into practice, tear Saudi Arabia as we know it to smithereens. So that’s what they did to him. “The Dissident” is riveting, but it’s also a moving testament to a man whose courage burned too brightly to die with him.