‘How to Build a Truth Engine’ Review: A Sobering but Flawed Doc on Disinformation

A carefully constructed and often sobering documentary about disinformation, “How to Build a Truth Engine” makes meticulous efforts to lay out its visual and thematic groundwork. However, its chilling portrait of the digital world comes up against a unique roadblock. A fleeting scene late in the film not only plays like a last-minute addition (concerning recent real-world events), but calls the movie’s own methodology into question. That the film is so effective at building its arguments is both testament and fatal flaw. When its narrative gives in to the same impulses it critiques, the audience has, ironically, been trained to recognize this failing.

Director Friedrich Moser builds a sense of allure as he introduces his ensemble of subjects, from neuroscientists to investigative journalists, whose fields of study seem completely disparate from one another at first. Moser, also the movie’s cinematographer, imbues each sprawling establishing landscape shot and intimate office interior with the appearance of a modern streaming procedural, bucking notions of visual realism in favor of high-contrast teals and immensely shallow focus. (That he superimposes some of these landscapes atop themselves, with a slight delay, makes the world itself feel unstable).

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Melding real subjects with a dramatized visual approach grants de facto permission for mood, tone and atmosphere to become key drivers of Moser’s cinematic experience, as opposed to charging out the gate with an academic mission statement. Initially, explanations of neurons, synapses and psychological processes feel logistically disconnected from the movie’s focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as a team of reporters pores over satellite imagery, raw video footage and recovered recordings of phone calls in order to unearth potential war crimes covered up by the Russian government. The further the film goes on, however, the more its digital maps of neural pathways resemble other images that appear on the subjects’ computer screens, like maps tracing the web-like movement of trending topics on social media, until eventually, its other shoe drops.

The film’s patchwork of experts all have similar concerns about the modern world, from insurrections in the United States to “fake news” campaigns the world over, and Moser weaves their viewpoints into an unsettling, kaleidoscopic depiction of modern media narratives in the wake of COVID-19. Its seemingly scattered anecdotes about people’s affinity for pattern recognition eventually lock like jigsaw pieces into a larger disconcerting portrait of political movements fueled by bigotry, as the film portrays not only the outcome and appearance of propaganda, but the emotional and psychological holes that it fills. It’s deeply depressing to witness, as though laying out the process of indoctrination into extremist thought in such stark terms had made it nearly insurmountable — though the film is equally a call to action in this regard.

However, “How to Build a Truth Engine” also makes an emotionally driven misstep that seems to fly in the face of its careful calculations. As various experts denote the way fascist regimes have historically dehumanized vulnerable groups, the film makes the curious decision to invoke — albeit briefly — last year’s Oct. 7 attacks in Israel as a parallel to these atrocities, and it begins this brief detour by deploying an alleged phone call from a Hamas member relaying his actions to his parents. Where the movie’s earlier instance of such a call (by a Russian soldier) is seen being scrutinized and analyzed by investigators in order to combat Russian military propaganda, this recording released by the Israeli military has never been independently verified by a similar team. The clip, therefore, isn’t shown being held to the same standards as similar information presented on screen, and it serves as the linchpin for the movie’s only subject matter that feels truncated and incomplete.

“How to Build a Truth Engine” has been in the works for several years. The inclusion of this phone call (published on Oct. 24, 2023) plays like a late-in-the-game addition, and appears to lack the diligent planning and detailing of the movie’s other segments. In a reach for topicality, this attempt to draw historical antisemitic parallels feels rushed and lopsided at best. At worst, it represents an ethical failing on the part of an otherwise morally clear-eyed movie, given the way it fails to illuminate any further historical or contemporary context surrounding Israel and Palestine. Its use of this tidbit of unverified information is dispiritingly narrow, serving the very preordained outcomes the movie critiques.

Any documentary is a work of perspective, but for one that so carefully argues the dangers of knee-jerk reactions to unverified media narratives — and the subsequent folding of these ideas into one’s view of reality — the film inexplicably avoids the journalistic rigor it holds in such high regard.

This two-minute segue isn’t enough to sabotage “How to Build a Truth Engine,” but it leaves a lingering bitterness that, ironically, illuminates its central point in chilling fashion. That a film so otherwise artistically accomplished, so meticulously detailed in its search for evidence, can so quickly re-create the circumstance it decries, is nothing if not illuminating about how none of us are immune.

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