Extensive coverage of the horrifying murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 might have left prospective audiences for Bryan Fogel’s investigative documentary wondering what more there is to know about these awful events. However, over its two-hour running time, the film not only delivers a bracing, comprehensive account of the killing itself – a premeditated assassination by state security agents almost certainly sanctioned by the highest echelons of the Saudi regime – but also traces Khashoggi’s past pathway of dissent in the face of the monolithic structures of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the explosion of social media has created an intensifying conflict between private freedom of expression and attempts to enforce state control.

Fogel’s film also features telling input from Khashoggi’s bereaved fiancée, the Turkish academic Hatice Cengiz, who describes the piercing loss she suffered on the verge of the new life she and Khashoggi were planning together, and how she has turned shock and grief into resilience and a quest for justice.

Her participation is undoubtedly a coup for the filmmaker, who’s lined up an impeccable array of witnesses, including key personnel in the Turkish murder investigation, former CIA chief John Brennan and UN special rapporteur Agnès Callamard. The fact that Fogel had won the Oscar for his previous feature Icarus (2017), about doping in sport, no doubt stood him in good stead, yet the interviews here are particularly vividly caught, with a genuine sense of one-to-one human engagement underlining the trust he fosters in his interviewees.

Jamal Khashoggi

Khashoggi himself spent a lot of time in front of TV cameras, but early on in the film there’s a vintage interview outtake – a shot ruined by his pet cat leaping on to his lap – where Khashoggi’s disarming, tickled-pink smile suggests the tender humanity behind a life spent in political manoeuvring.

That smile stays with us, one of the film’s key images, insistently reminding us of the individual toll behind the subsequent global headlines. With so much information to impart, Fogel evidently realised his film needed a human heartbeat to put emotional value on its diligent geopolitical analysis, and his skill shows in the ability to pick out the passing moments that effectively supply it.

Some might say he lucked out with Icarus, in which his ruse about creating his own doping programme to highlight the policing challenges faced by professional road-cycling unexpectedly escalated into an international incident involving his Russian adviser’s culpability in doping violations during the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.

There, his task was to hold on to the story to stop it galloping away from him; this time, the way he shapes a complex narrative through-line from present to past and thence to the future displays an even richer command of the medium. That includes working animated inserts and drone-shot nocturnal cityscapes into a coherent, captivating overall black-and-gold visual design.

Omar Abdulaziz

In the process, Fogel also shows his confidence in playing the long game, by weaving Khashoggi’s tragic trajectory in with defiant attempts by Omar Abdulaziz, a young Montreal-based Saudi exile, to mount an online campaign of resistance against the Saudi regime.

At first, Abdulaziz’s goal of beating the Saudi state propaganda machine to the top of the Twitter trending rankings seems an unimportant issue compared to Khashoggi’s looming fate. But Fogel provides a provocatively fresh insight by demonstrating how the two men’s paths from media conciousness-raising towards active anti-government Twitter campaigning were not only personally and ideologically linked, but met with a response exemplifying the Saudis’ chilling ruthlessness across both real world and online realms.

Indeed, the film’s key takeaway for global viewers is the alarming extent to which the Saudis ignore international rules-based standards, seemingly safe in the knowledge that their huge economic influence insulates them from diplomatic consequences.

The point gets across on an intellectual level, but it’s the film’s emotional component that leaves the strongest impression. Testimony from a Turkish prosecutor and a UN rapporteur who have heard the audio recordings of Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment is harrowing enough, as these seasoned professionals struggle to damp down their obvious distress; when set against an intimate selection of private photos, tweets and phone messages laying out Khashoggi and Cengiz’s burgeoning romance, the overall effect is simply devastating.

For a film that tackles huge issues – including the battle for democratic free expression, the role of social media and the international accountability of rogue states – it’s notable that the most abiding image is that of a newly-purchased La-Z-Boy recliner in an otherwise empty Istanbul apartment: a poignantly empty nest for a marriage that never happened, for a life never lived.

Further reading

Handling the truth: documenting conspiracy in the age of misinformation

Two gripping new documentaries about political killings, Assassins and The Dissident, deploy the tension-building techniques of the espionage thriller. We hear from Ryan White and Bryan Fogel, their respective directors, about pursuing and portraying the truth.

By Jonathan Romney

Handling the truth: documenting conspiracy in the age of misinformation

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.