It’s not exactly the type of film you’d expect to open on Christmas Day, but the new HBO documentary entitled THE DISSIDENT is essential viewing no matter when it premieres. You may think you know the story about the 2018 murder of vaulted Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but filmmaker Bryan Fogel has uncovered a fuller picture here that is both horrifying and riveting.
Fogel won the Best Documentary Oscar for his film ICARUS in 2018, and his newest doc has a lot in common with that expose about doping amongst Russian athletes. Here, too, he exposes a foreign country’s sins, this time belonging to those of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka “MBS.” As most know, various worldwide intelligence sources identified MBS as the man responsible for ordering Khashoggi’s murder. Still, this film goes deeper into exactly why the reporter was targeted and how his assassination was carried out.
The filmmaker shows respect for the dead and does not recreate the crime on camera, nor does he even show a great deal of the transcripts made from the recordings of what went down at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, that horrible day on October 2, 2018. Yet even what Fogel does reveal is hard to stomach. But rather than dwell on such grisly moments, Fogel spends the majority of his film investigating both what happened before the crime and after it. And what he uncovers is truly incredible.
As you may recall, Khashoggi was once a close friend of MBS, an insider advising him on how to modernize Saudi Arabia to grant more freedom to its citizens and become a more respected player on the world stage. MBS strived to adhere to such advice, but old habits die hard, and anyone who criticized his actions was often harassed, jailed, or ‘disappeared.’ When Khashoggi had enough of MBS’ hypocrisy, he left for the United States, becoming one of Saudi Arabia’s fiercest critics.
Fogel explains all that in exacting detail and backs it up with news clips, cogent historical narrative, and interviews with various witnesses who have first-hand knowledge of Khashoggi’s life’s crucial events. One of them is Omar Abdulaziz, a vlogger who not only was a friend and ally, but a similarly targeted truth-teller who got under MBS’s thin skin as well. He and Khashoggi worked together in American to find a way to usurp the Saudi bots that MBS had working by the hundreds on Twitter to paint a rosy picture of his regime. How Fogel presents that in the doc makes for edge-of-your-seat tension that would be any crime or thriller writer’s envy. Only here, it’s real.
On the other side of the coin, Fogel interviews Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz, portraying their love story with a tone of great sympathy and tenderness. Khashoggi was not only a courageous journalist but a loving man robbed of life by the side of this smart, compassionate, and brave woman. What Cengiz shares as she waited for hours for her fiance to return from the consulate with the papers he needed to marry her is absolutely heartbreaking.
The third act of the documentary examines the fallout from the murder, which is both encouraging and tragic. Some of what Fogel presents is admirable, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ rebuffing of MBS’ overtures towards him. Other events in the aftermath of the assassination are truly disgusting. Fogel doesn’t have to make too much of how our President turned a mostly blind eye to the matter. Fogel plays news clips of Trump’s ineffectual words, letting his weak reaction speaks volumes about where his morality and priorities lie.
It’s hard to take all of this corruption and skullduggery, but it’s a story that needs to be told, and there is so much to admire in Fogel’s superb telling of the tale, as well as HBO’s courage in giving him the platform to show it. And, if you think about it, the documentary’s release on Christmas Day couldn’t be more appropriate. After all, it’s the day that calls for peace on Earth and goodwill towards men.