“I am far from an ideal person, but I’m a person with ideals.” Say what you will about exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky — formerly one of the seven oligarchs who controlled 50% of the money in post-Soviet Russia, and now an enemy of the state who Putin would personally throw into prison for the rest of his life should he ever touch foot on home soil again — but the guy is more self-aware than most of the bastards who have shaped the modern world.
That alone would make him a natural subject for a documentary about the current state of his birth country, but Alex Gibney’s “Citizen K” is only tangentially concerned with what makes Khodorkovsky tick. Gibney is more interested in using the billionaire pariah as a pinhole into the guts of gangster capitalism; as a lens through which to consider that capitalism and democracy might be theologically incompatible. A grippingly clear and comprehensive overview of post-Soviet Russia that’s wrapped around the smeared maquette of a man who’s defined it, “Citizen K” unpacks the story of Putin’s rise to power through the eyes of someone who made it possible; a self-interested tycoon who only found morality in a Siberian jail cell once everything else had been taken away from him.
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Known for his assembly line production speed, the ever-prolific Gibney (whose Elizabeth Holmes profile “The Inventor” premiered at Sundance earlier this year) has earned a reputation for being somewhat dry and detached, but he’s always been drawn to larger-than-life characters, and willing to laugh at the absurdity of their ambition at the same time as he recoils from the consequences of their actions. “Citizen K” lays that all on the table in its very first shot, as Zbigniew Preisner’s “Song for the Unification of Europe” blares over some aerial footage of the snow-covered Yukos oil fields that the rest of the movie will drill for conflict; the same oil fields that Khodorkovsky bought after bilking millions of poor Russians through a currency trading scheme in the early ’90s.
It’s more darkly amusing than it sounds. In fact, the first hour of Gibney’s latest film unfolds like a documentary sequel to “The Death of Stalin,” as it depicts the scramble for power that followed Yeltsin’s presidency, a deadpan comedy of errors. Khodorkovsky, who says that he’s always been interested in things that explode, was ready to seize the moment when Russia began its awkward transition from communism to capitalism. The son of two middle-class engineers, Khodorkovsky — in a vaguely Hamiltonian ascent to power — climbed national chaos like a ladder. He recognized that his country was changing faster than the laws could keep pace with it, and he didn’t mind stepping on entire financial stratas in order to rule the free market.
That had always been his way, and perhaps the way of power itself. One of the film’s more vivid motifs is the idea that our world belongs to those who are willing to take it for themselves by force. And Khodorkovsky understood that at a very young age: At one point in the hours upon hours of talking head testimony he provided to Gibney, the oligarch remembers how he stabbed the two goons who tried to steal his first paycheck. He never even thought of handing over the money. “I don’t value my life that much to exchange it for losing respect,” he tells Gibney, and that seems to be as basic an ethos as he’s ever had.
Of course, Khodorkovsky wasn’t the only person in Russia who felt that way, and it was only a matter of time before these types began to conspire together. As the introduction of personal wealth turned Post-Soviet Moscow into the murder capital of Europe, and a vulnerable public began turning to television in search of a way forward (in a film littered with exquisite archival material, nothing stands out quite like the Yeltsin administration’s hilariously demented ad for privitization vouchers), Khodorkovsky and his ilk recognized that capitalism offered its own ways of influencing the masses.
The oligarchs bought controlling stakes in media companies, and snapped up all of the biggest properties that used to be owned by the state. They saw capitalism as their own personal cash cow, and when Yeltsin became too ill to campaign for re-election (and prevent Russia from backsliding into communism) they concocted an elaborate “Wag the Dog”-like scheme to hide his health. There’s an entire movie in that episode alone, but Michael J. Palmer’s deft editing keeps the film on task by cutting from one spinning plate to the next until the whole nexus of crazy details coheres into a broader look at the precariousness of power; until matters of personal malfeasance are subsumed into the question that holds “Citizen K” together: What does an innocent man look like in a guilty country?
Khodorkovsky is an arresting and charismatic narrator who claims to be uncomfortable with lying, and his candid participation in Gibney’s doc would seem to support that. At the same time, however, he seems fatally shortsighted about some very basic truths. Khodorkovsky recognizes that people are guided by their own self-interest — that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely — but he was blindsided by the fact that Putin wrestled control away from the oligarchs who paved his way into the Kremlin on promises of mutually agreed upon corruption. And while Khodorkovsky doesn’t deny that streamlining his Siberian oil plants resulted in mass unemployment and countless deaths, he shrugs it off with an attitude that suggests “if it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.”
The final act of the film finds Gibney struggling to strike a balance between Khodorkovsky as a man, and Khodorkovsky as a symbol of Russia’s power struggle. In both regards, the subject is too big to fit into the frame of a single documentary, and while all of the third act detours (e.g. Petukhov’s murder, and a look at the players in Russia’s most recent election) are relevant in one way or another, “Citizen K” almost risks becoming as unwieldy as the country itself. It’s enough to make you just shake your head and give up, which — it turns out — is a great strategy for goading the masses into submission.
But we always return to Citizen K himself. Some will be swayed by Khodorkovsky’s mea culpas about being controlled by his money, and swayed by the life-changing prison stint that led him to spend what’s left of his fortune on a fumbling campaign to free Russia from Putin’s grip. It’s hard to hate anyone who Putin hates this much (Gibney supplies gripping footage of the kangaroo court that sentenced Khodorkovsky to jail, a soap opera that starts with an angry woman being covertly syringed in the neck on live TV and only gets wilder from there). Others won’t be entirely convinced that Khodorkovsky didn’t have a hand in the murder of Nefteyugansk mayor Vladimir Petukhov, and that he really is now as devoted to the greater good as he used to be to his own wealth.
There are true altruists out there, but capitalism isn’t designed for their benefit, and even now that he’s been reborn as a humanitarian, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Khodorkovsky isn’t one of them. Men like him are survivors driven by a pathological compulsion to make lemons out of lemonade; they always control their money in a way that reveals how their money controls them. He says he’s learned that democracy only functions when the powerful work against their own self-interest, but it could be that he’s always known that — the only difference now is that he claims to care.
Gibney appears determined to advance Khodorkovsky’s cause, and “Citizen K” only undermines its subject whenever its director feels himself drifting towards propaganda, but reducing the film to a matter of “for” or “against” would do it a great disservice. This is a study of power, and what power will do to survive; a study of how morality is more historically significant as a condition, and not a cause. The rich won’t save us — that’s what makes them rich. The fascinating “Citizen K” will leave you to determine the value in one of them saving themselves.
Greenwich Entertainment will open “Citizen K” at Los Angeles’ Laemmle Royal theater on November 22nd. The film will expand to additional markets in early 2020.