Skip to main content
film review

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, with journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a scene from The Dissident.The Associated Press

  • The Dissident
  • Directed by Bryan Fogel
  • Classification PG; 119 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

Credit where credit is due: The producers of the new documentary The Dissident know how to drum up a publicity campaign. Over the past year, there has been a significant amount of chatter in the media about how this new documentary from Bryan Fogel, director of the Oscar-winning 2017 Russian doping doc Icarus, is simply too hot to handle. But what if the material is merely lukewarm?

The conversation, such as it is, focuses on how none of the major movie distributors or streamers, all insatiable for new content, have picked up The Dissident, which examines the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the Saudi Arabian government. Ostensibly, none of the industry’s largest players want to risk offending Riyadh, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has spent the past several years currying favour with myriad Hollywood figures. Even Netflix, which garnered its second-ever Academy Award thanks to Icarus, decided to pass.

After watching The Dissident, which is getting a limited video-on-demand release this month from independent distributors Briarcliff Entertainment in the U.S. and levelFILM in Canada, I’m fairly certain that a fear of offending Saudia Arabia plays a part in all this. But I’m even more sure that the larger reason is acutely mundane: The Dissident is not a great film. It is a good film, but nothing that I could see sparking a bidding war, or even a bidding skirmish.

I don’t mean to dismiss Fogel’s work outright – much of what is on display here is thoroughly interesting and well-investigated. For those who only know of Khashoggi’s story through a quick scan of headlines, The Dissident offers a deep and well-considered dive into the life of a man who was once thoroughly enmeshed in Riyadh’s inner circle, only to find himself compelled to speak truth to power.

Cast out of his country and forced to abandon his family, Khashoggi could have spiralled into depression or chosen to censor himself. Instead, he pushed forward with a courageous agenda, attempting to reveal everything that was so corrupt about his homeland. And in the end, he paid a horrible price.

Fogel’s investigation into Khashoggi’s 2018 “disappearance” after he stepped inside the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul delivers some surprising, and gruesome, revelations. And there are some wonderfully head-smacking details about the relationship between Mohammed bin Salman and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, where Khashoggi’s columns appeared. (Everyone is freely welcome to speculate as to whether Bezos’s involvement plays into the fact that Amazon Prime Video neglected to distribute The Dissident; things are muddied, though, by the fact that Bezos comes off particularly well here.)

But there is a whiff of desperate energy to Fogel’s film. Khashoggi’s life, and the political history of Saudi Arabia, is juicy enough to carry a feature-length documentary. Yet Fogel consistently employs the tactics of a spy movie to needlessly, annoyingly gussy things up, including a framing device that focuses on the Montreal-set exploits of Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz. There is a cheapness to these tricks, embellishments which regularly threaten to either bore the audience or, worse, mute the very real dangers that Khashoggi was fighting to expose.

Try, though, not to let this ugly truth get in the way of a good story.

The Dissident is available digitally on-demand starting Jan. 8

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.