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‘Putin’s Revenge’ review: Not much new in look at U.S.-Russia saga

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the subject of

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the subject of "Putin's Revenge" on PBS. Credit: Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin

THE DOCUMENTARY “Putin’s Revenge” on “Frontline”

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday and Nov. 1 at 10 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT This two-part “Frontline” explores the “inside story of how Vladimir Putin came to see the United States as an enemy [and] how U.S. intelligence came to believe he targeted the 2016 presidential election,” according to its news release.  The broadcast features interviews with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan, and includes numerous interviews with journalists who covered the Russian cyberattack during the 2016 election.

MY SAY Russian cyber interference during the 2016 presidential election is now a well-established story, which is another way of saying that it’s an old story. The world moves fast, while our attention span is measured in hours, if not minutes. Something that happened more than a year ago requires a deep refresher and — as always — “Frontline” is here to do the deep refreshing. “Putin’s Revenge” offers history, context, foreshadowing and insight. There is helpful analysis from former State Department and CIA officials. Some of the excellent reporters who covered this a year ago (The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza and Evan Osnos, The New York Times’ Peter Baker and The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, to name a few) are quoted extensively. As always, “Frontline” is authoritative and comprehensive.

But “old” is still old. What’s new here? Pretty much nothing. You’ve seen it all, heard it all, read it all — at least if you read the voluminous news accounts of Russian cyber hacking that proliferated during and after the election. To have missed this story means to have been confined under the proverbial rock, and it’s hard to imagine anyone will crawl out from their confinement to finally learn about the story from “Frontline.”

That’s too bad because the story is important — but it’s also one that demands a forward spin. That’s not here, either. Where, for example, does Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the election stand? Have there been any other instances of hacking since the election? Has the U.S. government formulated strategies to subvert such efforts in the future? Moreover, there’s some unfinished business here, or at least unfinished reporting: How exactly did the CIA pin the Russian cyberattack directly on Russian President Putin? “Putin’s Revenge” says in next week’s installment that the agency did in fact uncover evidence of his involvement in 2016, “but exactly what the CIA found is classified.” The question not asked is “why?” Or would the answer compromise the United States’ own cyber-sleuthing initiatives?

The best of these hours is Wednesday’s. It paints a portrait of someone obsessed with his own self-image and the role of Russia on the world stage — and how a succession of U.S. leaders have subverted that role. Putin himself addressed all of this (exhaustively) during Oliver Stone’s “The Putin Interviews” on Showtime. “Frontline” offers a more concise timeline.

BOTTOM LINE Good overview, otherwise not much new.

 

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