Thoroughly researched and highly entertaining, “Khodorkovsky” recounts the strange story of its eponymous subject, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the famous oligarch who’s been languishing in a Siberian prison since 2003 on trumped up tax-evasion charges. Helmer Cyril Tuschi doesn’t disguise his admiration for the tycoon who defied Putin, but the docu never descends into hagiography, and along the way it delivers a pungent portrait of contempo Russia. Shot in widescreen, “Khodorkovsky” deserves to run free in cinemas, but will probably be confined mostly to fests and upscale TV enclosures.
Docu gained international notoriety before it even premiered at the Berlinale when it was reported that computers containing a digital copy of the pic were stolen from its helmer’s Berlin office. Suspicions were raised that this was more than just an ordinary burglary given that other valuables were left behind, especially since a hard drive of an earlier version of the film also went missing from the helmer’s hotel in a separate incident. The Kremlin’s black-ops division is not known for its subtlety, a point made by interviewees in “Khodorkovsky” itself.
Weaving together numerous interviews, archival material and stylized computer animation illustrating moments from Khodorkovsky’s life including his arrest, pic unfolds a fascinating story of the rise and fall of a man who, at the height of his powers at not even 40, was among the richest individuals on the planet.
Benefiting from access to members of Khodorkovsky’s family and early associates, pic traces how he made the transition from chemistry student to businessman in the 1980s. His greatest stroke of luck was grabbing the chance to buy the massively undervalued, formerly state-owned oil franchise Yukos at a time when Boris Yeltsin preferred to see it sold off cheaply rather than have it fall into non-Russian hands.
Interviewees state frankly that in the early days, Khodorkovsky was by no means above corruption, but that he learned to run his company with accountable transparency because that was the best way to allow it to grow internationally. But later when he tried to champion reform and embarrassed Vladimir Putin publicly with accusations of state corruption, the president bit back. A poignant interview with Pavel Khodorkovsky, the oligarch’s eldest son, reveals how the billionaire knew he was going to be arrested in 2003 on dodgy tax-evasion charges but chose to fight in court rather than run into exile like so many of his peers.
Pic’s biggest coup is its access to Khodorkovsky himself, seen interviewed by helmer Tuschi through thick glass in the courtroom where he faced new charges in 2010 (for stealing his own oil) that resulted in another six years in prison. Excerpts are also read, in English by actor Harvey Friedman, from letters Khodorkovsky wrote to Tuschi from jail, explaining how he sees his situation and the real reasons for his imprisonment.
The maker of several fictional shorts and one dramatic feature, “Slight Changes in Temperature and Mind,” Tuschi pays due diligence to docu ethics here but injects “Khodorkovsky” with a welcome playfulness. Somewhat in the style of Michael Moore but with less vanity, he lets the seams show in moments when his interviewees behave more naturally, not quite sure the cameras are rolling. There are some fine comic moments sprinkled throughout, as when one subject illustrates his point about state power using a hungry baby hippopotamus he happens to be feeding at the time.
Along the way, the pic not only tells Khodorkovsky’s story but builds a less-than-flattering portrait of Russian society now, one populated by materialistic New Russians, drunken journalists, cynical ex-KGB men and ignorant young people who’ve swallowed the Kremlin Kool-Aid that preaches Khodorkovsky “stole” from the people of Russia. It’s a shame the one place the pic is least likely to be shown officially is in the country where it’s largely set.
Solid tech package is further enhanced by a strong soundtrack of excerpts from composer Arvo Part’s symphony “Los Angeles,” which he dedicated to Khodorkovsky.