TIFF Review: ‘Citizen K’

Alex Gibney’s latest explores Russian history through the tale of Mikhail Khodorkovsky

4 mins read

Citizen K
(USA, 125 min)
Dir. Alex Gibney
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)

Alex Gibney is a master of the well-made doc. It’s hard to find fault in his films. Everything is in its place. Staged interviews with key players, archival footage and expository voiceover are all seamlessly edited together into a well-paced narrative. Just as it’s hard to find fault, it’s hard to be surprised by anything Gibney does. Though he gravitates to scandal and controversy, he rarely if ever renders judgment or even offers much in the way of argument. His films are less like essays and more like 101 courses.

Citizen K gives the Gibney treatment to Russian oil magnate and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky’s story being intricately linked with the upheaval of Russian society after the breakup of the Soviet Union, much of Citizen K is given over to an overview of that period, from the disaster of privatization and the concomitant corruption of Yeltsin’s loans-for-shares program to the age of Putin. It’s a familiar story capably told; if one of Gibney’s talking heads, the Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky, does a somewhat more interesting job of it in his book The Invention of Russia, which hones in on the role of the media in shaping Russian thought in the past three decades, it’s still hard to find fault with Gibney’s approach. Gibney wants to refract Russian history through the person of Khodorkovsky, and he does so capably, using the story to detect signs of Putin’s creeping authoritarianism and of the ways Russians have adapted to capitalism and pseudo-democracy.

Khodorkovsky—as the title’s reference to Citizen Kane insinuates—made the mistake of getting interested in politics. This raised Putin’s ire, and he had Khodorkovsky imprisoned for ten years on trumped-up embezzlement charges. (True to form, Gibney refuses to weigh in substantially on the very real possibility that, embezzlement aside, Khodorkovsky ordered the murder of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, who had wanted Khodorkovsky’s company Yukos to start paying taxes. The townspeople Gibney interviews are in no doubt that Khodorkovsky did it.)

If the film falls flat at any point, it’s when it tries to make Khodorkovsky out to be more than he is. Khodorkovsky lives in exile in London now and, despite his years in prison, is hardly diminished—his net worth stands at around $500 million. (OK, it’s not the $16 billion he was apparently worth prior to his arrest, but still.) He remains politically active in Russia, but from a distance and, Gibney intimates, not very successfully. Khodorkovsky seems unperturbed. Prison taught him patience, he says in the film. The film is a bit modest in its reach, given everything that has happened to Khodorkovsky and Russia. One gets the sense Gibney wishes Khodorkovsky were the Russian George Soros. It seems a bit of a stretch.

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