By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 30, 2011 at 10:30AM
In 2004, Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky was on his private jet when he was arrested for tax fraud and oil theft; he was later sentenced to prison in a remote Siberian penitentiary. The scandal created headlines around the world, but in "Khodorkovsky," filmmaker Cyril Tuschi puts forward a very different view: Khodorkovsky may have been the victim of Vladimir Putin's territorial rage when the affluent businessman refused to stay out of political affairs. The movie convincingly turns a power-hungry archetype into an unlikely martyr for free speech.
The richest man in the country at the time of his arrest, billionaire Khodorkovsky's current standing in the national mindset is that of a brilliantly corrupt mogul -- Steve Jobs by way of Bernie Madoff. Tuschi shows that Khodorkovsky as a Russians who led the charge of new-age capitalism in a post-socialist economy; it's a display of his determination as much as his innovative ideas. But it doesn't prove the charges leveled against him.
"Khodorkovsky" develops into a first-rate journalistic exposé, with Tuschi positioning Khodorkovsky's takedown as a Stalinist ruse openly engineered by Putin. That blatant assertion endows "Khodorkovsky" with implicit outrage. Not only does it focus on one man falling victim to a mangled justice system, but it also shows how his fate ties into the broader identity crisis that continues to still plague Russia. Those who want Russia to be free from its past may not love the idea of a wealthy ruling class, but it certainly beats the old way of doing things. Khodorkovsky's history with big-business development unquestionably helped mold Russia's current economic landscape. As a student activist tells the director, he was "the best of the worst."
The film initially takes the perspective of a first-person documentary and the film flails when Tuschi puts himself on camera. Thankfully, that approach is all but abandoned after an explanatory first act. After that, Tuschi puts Khodorkovsky in control and the movie wises up. The filmmaker reads letters he receives from the jailed businessman, often setting the voiceover to moody black-and-white animation, turning Khodorkovsky into the principal storyteller. His seemingly levelheaded indictments of Putin are set against the contempt that everyday Russian citizens feel for Khodorkovsky himself. A local DJ disputes the entire nature of Tuschi's project. "It's like free PR for a guilty person," she says.
Based on the information presented in "Khodorkovsky," that sentiment is difficult to validate. However, the director makes a strong case for the unresolved nature of Khodorkovsky's incarceration. Driving the narrative (with palpable intrigue) are a slew of talking heads who worked closely with Khodorkovsky. Says a former colleague, "He created the system that scrutinized him." The overarching irony of the oligarch's capitalism attracting liberal sympathies is never far from the director's focus.
Unsurprisingly, the movie's hard-line stance has fueled rumors that the film's minuscule release in Russia -- on a single screen -- is the result of government censorship. (Similarly, a master copy was stolen ahead of the movie's February premiere at the Berlin Film Festival). With its subject still behind bars and the Russian government on the brink of reelecting Kremlin's United Russia party, the biggest triumph of "Khodorkovsky" is the case it makes for a sequel.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening today at Film Forum, "Khodorkovsky" should attract strong numbers due to its topical subject matter and activist intent, while the upcoming election means grassroots screenings could take place further down the line and continue its theatrical life.