An epic account of waste, mismanagement and corruption that makes bridges to nowhere everywhere look like small potatoes, “Putin’s Games” sheds scandalous light on the infrastructural problems surrounding Russia’s bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. This fish stinks from the head, argues filmmaker Alexander Gentelev (“The Rise and Fall of the Russian Oligarchs”), who blames the country’s president for the city of Sochi’s money-hemorrhaging attempts to accommodate such a high-profile event. This stranger-than-fiction tale would surely warm George Orwell’s satirical soul, were he around to see a docu destined to delight fest auds everywhere but Russia itself.
According to Gentelev, the Olympic Games typically cost each host city somewhere in the ballpark of $2 billion. Back in 2007, Vladimir Putin won the 2014 bid by appearing in person before the Intl. Olympic Committee and pledging $12 billion in development funds — a figure that Gentelev’s sources estimate swells to more than $50 billion after factoring in private investors, with no sign that the key facilities will be complete and operational in time. But the miscalculation behind Putin’s vanity project extends far beyond money, the film argues, with the entire scheme built on bad assumptions, starting with the fact that Sochi is actually in Russia’s only subtropical region and therefore totally unfit to host winter sports.
Supplying English-dubbed narration without making himself a character, Gentelev plays a “Roger & Me”-style game of trying to confront the parties responsible for the fiasco, seldom getting farther than a wall of goons who look all too eager to break his camera. Unsurprisingly, Putin remains an aloof and abstract target throughout the entire critique, while the IOC declines to be interviewed and denies use of its footage or even the word “Olympics” (forcing the helmer to scrap his original title, “Putin’s Olympics,” in favor of a more satisfying play on words).
Instead, the pic samples clips of various news conferences and public appearances in which the Putin grandstands about its victory over rival cities — namely Salzburg, Austria, whose spokespeople appear understandably skeptical about the IOC’s decision to award the games to a country that still lags behind the developed world on key human-rights fronts. The film also quotes chess champ Garry Kasparov and other skeptics who feel Putin has made hosting the Winter Olympics a personal crusade, presumably at the expense of issues far more pressing to the Russian presidential agenda.
Relying on a jaunty piano score that would be right at home as accompaniment for a slapstick silent movie, “Putin’s Games” expresses bemusement rather than outrage at the situation. There’s the fact that winter sports couldn’t be farther from the identity of Sochi, a sunny resort community whose jolly mayor (the sort that pries the shopping bags from a little old lady under the pretext of helping her) proudly beams, “Isn’t it better here than at Cannes?”
To correct for the obvious logistical challenge, costly building projects are under way an hour or so outside town, with ski ramps built on terrain susceptible to landslides and other structures set to be erected on unstable swampland. Nearly half the budget goes to bribery, while the rest often pays for work that must later be scrapped and redone. And then there’s the highway connecting the cities where the events will actually take place, a project so costly that, according to one interviewee, “you could pave the road from Adler to Krasnaya Polyana with pure gold 5mm thick.”
Granted, nearly everywhere in the world, contract work is notoriously unreliable when it comes to quality and cost, but seldom has a project looked so badly calculated. Judging by the bloated, pink bikini bodies that line the city’s beaches, the film convincingly argues that Putin should have realized he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Sochi of pulling off this scheme on the proposed schedule and budget. And so the doc becomes something even more telling — a portrait of modern Russian folly that offers big laughs as it reveals alarming truths about how things get done (or don’t) in a system where national pride doesn’t take simple practicality into account.