‘Kingdom of Silence’: Film Review

Rick Rowley takes a deep dive into the life of the late Jamal Khashoggi in ‘Kingdom of Silence,’ a Showtime documentary executive produced by Alex Gibney and Lawrence Wright.

For many westerners who keep up with current events, Jamal Khashoggi is remembered mostly as a victim, a name from headlines two years back. The Saudi-born journalist, at the time of his death a columnist for The Washington Post and an American resident, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, to collect some documents related to his upcoming marriage. Inside the consulate, he was detained, tortured and murdered. His body was dismembered with a bone saw by Saudi intelligence operatives — who, according to the CIA, were obeying orders ultimately from Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto head of state — and smuggled out of the consulate, never to be seen again.

His murder became a scandal not only because of the obvious brutality of the deed, but also because President Trump, with an arms deal on the line and who knows what other nefarious influences at play, refused to sanction or even mildly criticize the Saudi state, much less MBS. Responding to outrage from other countries, the Saudis eventually held a trial and convicted eight low-ranking operatives in September 2020 for the murder. The convictions barely made a ripple in the turbulent news cycles of the moment as stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, the American presidential election and the environmental disaster ravaging every continent washed over the media landscape.

The Bottom Line

Respectful but not hagiographic.

Kingdom of Silence, Showtime’s measured and persuasive feature documentary, released to coincide with the second anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, assiduously expands on Jamal’s story. The film is directed with sharp intelligence by Rick Rowley, who also serves as the film’s DP. His resume sets him up well for this task given that he also made the Academy Award-nominated Dirty Wars, a feature that grew out of his years as a war reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a film tackling another unjust murder, 16 Shots, about the killing of Laquan McDonald.

Meanwhile, documentary grandee Alex Gibney serves as one of Kingdom‘s executive producers, as does eminent journalist Lawrence Wright, who also speaks onscreen about his personal friendship with Khashoggi. (Gibney and Wright collaborated previously on Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.) Together the team finds in Khashoggi a more complicated, multivalent character than the free-speech martyr he comes across as in most short-form journalism.

For starters, Khashoggi was no dissident in his early days but a scion of Saudi Arabia’s elite class, close to the royal family, who championed his nation’s interest for many years. He made his bones as journalist by reporting on fellow Saudis fighting on the side of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s. There, he met Abdullah Anas, who is interviewed here by Rowley, and who later facilitated an introduction for Khashoggi to Osama bin Laden. Rostrum shots of photographs, some taken by Khashoggi and some of him and Osama together, illustrate that they had a close connection and Khashoggi was in a sense responsible for making bin Laden one of the first Saudi celebrities.

Rowley methodically charts how Khashoggi gradually shifted from being a patriotic insider, tight with the upper echelons of Saudi power, to being more sympathetic to dissident voices both within the kingdom and in neighboring nations, especially as the Arab Spring shifted hearts and minds throughout the Middle East. Gradually, he found the courage to voice his stringent criticism of the regime, especially in relation to the war on Yemen and the incrementally increasing repression of human rights, and this is what led to his death.

Like a Middle Eastern Zelig, Khashoggi seems to have been close by at key moments throughout the history of Saudi-American relations. The narrative arc of his story is almost emblematic, Wright suggests, in an eloquent observation he makes toward the film’s end. “America and the Kingdom have a toxic relationship,” he notes. “It poisons not only our own societies, but it’s spread all over the world. The chaos, the wars — America’s had a big hand in it, and Jamal’s been in the middle of that from his earliest days. He embodied, in some ways, that relationship. But this contradiction became so nakedly obvious, you had to choose: Which side are you on?”

Other American perspectives offered here come from a wide variety of interviewees, including Ambassador David Rundell, former CIA director John Brennan and former Obama administration staffer turned podcaster Ben Rhodes, among others. But the most insightful contributions come from the many friends and colleagues who knew Khashoggi best, from human rights activists such as Mohamed Soltan and Tawakkol Karman to former colleague Nawaf Obaid to Hanan El-Atr, an Egyptian woman who came forward after Khashoggi’s death and claimed they had just been married.

She’s not to be confused with Hatice Cengiz, conspicuously not interviewed here, the young woman to whom Khashoggi had become engaged also just before his death and who was very visible in the media after he was killed. Khashoggi’s murky love life adds an interesting wrinkle to the story that could have been developed further; perhaps it was felt that this strand of his story might dilute sympathy if explored more thoroughly.

In technical terms, the package is slickly produced and will look very much of a piece with the upmarket documentaries backed by Showtime. Nevertheless, the minimalistic cello and flute score composed by Brian McOmber is especially lovely and adds an extra dash of elegance.

Distribution: Showtime Networks
With: Jamal Khashoggi, Nasser Faris, Lawrence Wright, David Rundell, John Brennan, Abdullah Anas, Marwan Bishara, Ali Soufan, Richard Clarke, Ben Rhodes, Maggie Mitchell Salem, Nawaf Obaid, Andrew J. Maloney, Tawakkol Karman, Mohamed Soltan, Tarek Fawaz, Laila Al Shaikhli, Nizar Kandil, Hanan El-Atr
Production: A Showtime Documentary Films presentation of a Jigsaw Production
Director/director of photography: Rick Rowley
Producers: Sam Black, Trevor Davidoski,
Executive producers: Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright, Stacey Offman, Richard Perello, Vinnie Malhotra
Editor: Alexis Johnson, A.J. Edwards
Music: Brian McOmber
Sales: Showtime

No rating; 97 minutes