Citizen K

Review by Ed Gibbs

Directed by

Alex Gibney

Starring

Leonid Nevzlin Mikhail Khodorkovsky Vladimir Putin

Anticipation.

One-man documentary machine Alex Gibney can be a little hit-and-miss.

Enjoyment.

This fascinating profile of an ex-oligarch works as a damning indictment of modern Russia.

In Retrospect.

Really feels like Gibney got his hands dirty with this one.

Documentary maker Alex Gibney surveys post-Soviet Russia via the strange tale of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Given his uneven output of recent years – Rolling Stone magazine, Fela Kuti and Lance Armstrong films being cases in point – it is something of a joy (and relief) to find Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney back firing on all cylinders and reconnecting with his political muse.

Using the journey of fallen oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a lens through which to explore the current state of Russia and its faux democracy – and in turn, America’s and the UK’s – Gibney reasserts two of his most vital qualities: his impartiality and fastidious fact-checking. The result is easily his strongest work in years.

Winning Khodorkovsky’s trust without compromising his own integrity, Gibney enlists the help of former BBC Moscow correspondent Martin Sixsmith in retracing the grim reality of Russia post-glasnost. In the wake of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the figure of Boris Yeltsin’s local hero loomed large, tearing down the wall to create a different sort of capitalism that was fatally flawed.

Seven opportunistic businessmen quickly relieved dazzled Russians of their government-issued vouchers at bargain-basement prices, only to use them elsewhere to buy up the nation’s most lucrative companies. Gibney dubs it “gangster capitalism”. It left the few extremely rich and the many very poor.

Not long after that, Khodorkovsky and the oligarchs controlled 50 per cent of the Russian economy, including TV stations and oilfields. When a sick Yeltsin played a wicked game to stay in power, borrowing money from the oligarchs that his government couldn’t hope to repay, the malevolent seven reasserted their grip on power, halting any return to communism and ensuring misery for millions of everyday Russians.

Khodorkovsky’s own journey – from sociopathic businessman to incarcerated scapegoat to reformed criminal (he spent 10 years behind bars) – is told with panache and flourishes of whimsy. The film is rich in detail, yet is neatly presented as a political thriller. Ample footage of the farcical show trials of Khodorkovsky are here, as is the media’s coverage of Putin’s so-called “election theatre” campaign of recent years. Only a brief reference to the threat to US democracy is needed to bring the reality home.

Today, as he approaches two decades in power, Putin has his own cronies in place. He’s been popular with the people for bringing the oligarchs to heel (Putin happily quotes Stalin to push the point home), yet a shift in public opinion sees a reformed Khodorkovsky emerge as an unlikely hero of the people, albeit with severely depleted influence. Putin, we are told, views Khodorkovsky as an equal, meaning the latter’s life remains in danger. Khodorkovsky believes Putin’s time in power is limited.

Like its subject, the film isn’t without its flaws. Gibney’s voiceover slips into cliché from time to time. The contemporary narrative in London could also be more fully formed. And we don’t get to hear from Khodorkovsky’s family, despite them being referenced. But these are minor quibbles. Overall, Citizen K presents a wildly entertaining and timely picture of a global issue in as succinct a way as possible. It carries its universal themes efficiently without wearing them too earnestly on its sleeve.

Published 10 Dec 2019

Tags: Alex Gibney

Anticipation.

One-man documentary machine Alex Gibney can be a little hit-and-miss.

Enjoyment.

This fascinating profile of an ex-oligarch works as a damning indictment of modern Russia.

In Retrospect.

Really feels like Gibney got his hands dirty with this one.

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