Review: ‘The Dissident’ chronicles assassination of Jamal Khashoggi

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Dissident'

In 2017, Bryan Fogle won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for “Icarus,” which started as a first-person steroid reenactment of cyclist Lance Armstrong and evolved into a wider expose on the Olympic doping scandal by the Russian government.

Truly, it’s a rare talent to balance “Super Size Me” and “Citizenfour” like “Icarus” did.

Now, Fogel follows up with another riveting doc that plays like a political thriller, “The Dissident,” which opened on Christmas Day and hits Video on Demand on Friday.

The film chronicles Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2, 2018, presenting damning evidence against Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

A documentary is only as compelling as its characters and here they offer intimate insights. In addition to archival Khashoggi clips, we get fresh interviews with fiancee Hatice Cengiz, Post colleague David Ignatius and Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz.

Brace yourself for chilling surveillance camera footage of Khashoggi entering the consulate in his very last image alive, unaware of the fate that is about to befall him. We also see CCTV of culprits carrying duffle bags of Khashoggi’s dismembered body and a body double dressed as Khashoggi who ultimately changes outfits across town.

True-crime fans will lean forward as forensic photos reveal DNA blood splatter like “CSI,” while a suspicious backyard could well have been a pit to burn the body like “Making a Murderer.” Fogel dives into all the details, including how the consulate ordered truck loads of meat from a nearby butcher to mask the smell of flesh.

Most disturbing is audio of Khashoggi fighting for his life, as well as the aftermath of the killers discussing what to do with his remains. Mercifully, like Werner Herzog in “Grizzly Man” (2005), Fogel spares us the most gruesome sounds on the death tape.

Through it all, two thematic throughlines emerge.

First is the abuse of technology. Like “The Social Dilemma” (2020), “The Dissident” reveals the elaborate network of Saudi hackers employed by MBS to crack down on dissenting voices via social media. There’s also the secret tracking of Jeff Bezos, infecting his phone with a malware to spy on Amazon and The Washington Post.

The other major theme is freedom of the press. In an era where dictators claim “fake news” and “alternate facts” to any opposing view, “The Dissident” insists journalists are not the “enemy of the people,” but rather a necessity to hold our leaders accountable.

In the end, Khashoggi died fighting for the same rights that spawned the Arab Spring.

Where’s the justice? The final “where are they now” text will infuriate you, as it should, cementing “The Dissident” as one of the definitive Top 10 Documentaries of 2020.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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