Film Review: ‘Citizen K’

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's wild ride from oligarch to prisoner to anti-Putin dissident is rich material for Alex Gibney's latest deep-dive documentary.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky stands behind bars at
Courtesy of Associated Press

“He wants to be Jesus Christ, but he has a past.” So says one political commentator about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the mercurial political activist under scrutiny in “Citizen K,” and if the remark seems blandly unfair on the face of it — who doesn’t have a past? — it’s hard to imagine Jesus himself gaining much moral authority with this particular background. A self-made billionaire and former oil oligarch who at one point could claim to be the wealthiest man in Russia, he was liberalized by a ten-year spell in prison under the Putin regime, emerging as a power-challenging dissident, and founding the pro-democracy initiative Open Russia. Khodorkovsky’s is a political about-face that feels almost too good, too neat, to be true: In Alex Gibney’s chewy, engrossing documentary, it’s a reversal that unlocks many of the conflicts and contradictions ailing post-Soviet Russia’s capitalist democracy.

Authoritative and dense — though never dull — at over two hours, “Citizen K” is the prolific docmaker’s most rewarding feature in several years, attaching his typically methodical research to a cheerfully slippery, charismatic human subject who, even on the side of right, is cagey in the face of investigation. For those already well-versed in recent Russian history, it’s a witty, close-up character study of one of its most intriguing players; for others, Khodorkovsky’s colorful narrative leads into a wider brass-tacks tutorial on just what the hell is going on in Putin’s Russia today. Either way, it’s accessibly polished and serious-minded in the way that Gibney has made his stock-in-trade since winning an Oscar for 2007’s “Taxi to the Dark Side”; following festival appointments at Venice and Toronto, multi-platform distribution is assured far and wide. (Russia, not so much.)

Gibney opens the film with a drolly ironic music cue, as the soaring choral lilt of Zbigniew Preisner’s “Song for the Unification of Europe” (composed for Kieślowski’s “Three Colors: Blue”) reverberates gloriously over desolate aerial photography of the snow-draped YUKOS oilfields — once the jewel of Khodorkovsky’s business empire. Russia, of course, is no more unified with Europe than it is united in itself, though the rest of the continent has its own part to play in the filmmaker’s study: “Like so many Russian stories these days,” he narrates with dry irony, “this one begins in London.” That’s where Khodorkovsky has been living in exile in 2015; an outstanding arrest warrant for the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, a Siberian small-town mayor who called for YUKOS to be charged with tax evasion, keeps him from returning to his homeland. Khodorkovsky airily insists he has nothing to do with it; “Citizen K” doesn’t exactly take him at his word, but viewers are invited to consider the evidence for themselves.

It’s that bristling tension between heroism and villainy that makes Khodorkovsky such an unnerving subject for this kind of portraiture: Viewers may find their instincts about him shifting multiple times over the course of two hours. There’s certainly little sympathy to be drawn from the film’s account of his early days as a gangster capitalist, when the young Khodorkovsky took ruthless advantage of the post-Communist economic uncertainty that came with the transition from Gorbachev to Yeltsin’s free-market economy: Buying up state-issued vouchers from bewildered members of the public to fund his own privatized banking and oil schemes, he was one of just seven men controlling half the country’s economy by the mid-1990s.

You have to read between the lines — or Khodorkovsky’s active, mischievous dimples — to gauge much regret on his part over this period of untrammeled greed: After all, the man is still living off this fortune today. Yet as one of the few oligarchs to take a keen interest in politics, he can trace some complicity in his own downfall. Once the oligarchs, fearful of a return to Communism in wake of the economic collapse they designed, corruptly manipulated both Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection and the 1999 takeover of Putin, they didn’t quite anticipate how the system would turn on them. After Khodorkovsky began bolshily speaking out on state corruption under Putin, he had to be silenced: Cue fraud charges, several Kafkaesque show trials, and a decade-long incarceration in farthest Siberia.

Gibney frames these events as a mixture of high farce and needling legal thriller, attentive at once to small procedural details and a disquieting bigger picture: Khodorkovsky’s rigged case encapsulates the tactics that have kept Putin dubiously in power (even when he hasn’t been President) for nearly 20 years. Wronged if not exactly innocent, meanwhile, Khodorkovsky took the time to forge a new political philosophy in stark contrast to the nominal principles on which he once stood. It’s for audiences to decide if he’s a hypocrite, a sincerely changed man or both, though the film offers a substantial ensemble of journalists and political talking heads to voice their own divergent opinions.

Edited to a feverish froth by Michael J. Palmer — a dab hand at working copious facts into a fast, fiction-like flow — and perhaps a little over-reliant on swirling Tchaikovsky in its dizziest sections, “Citizen K” does decelerate in its final act into something a little more rueful, mournful and unavoidably unresolved. Once an urgently neutralized threat to Putin’s power, Khodorkovsky is a far less influential figure now than he was in his gilded pomp: Scenes of Open Russia’s slightly shabby campaign efforts on the ground are poignant, while the film briefly dwells on the assassination of multiple Putin opponents in the U.K., noting that Khodorkovsky is vulnerable to a similar fate. These are the costs of going clear, to pull a term from another Gibney project: If the dissident is seeking to rebuild his reputation from the ground up, however, this ambiguously fascinated documentary is a good place to start.

Film Review: ‘Citizen K’

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, Aug. 22, 2019. (In Venice Film Festival — noncompeting; Toronto Film Festival — TIFF Docs.) Running time: 126 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary — U.K.-U.S.) A Passion Pictures, Jigsaw Prods., Storyteller Prods. production. (International sales: Kew Media Group, London.) Producers: John Battsek, Alex Gibney, P.J. Van Sandwijk, George Chignell, Erin Edeiken. Executive producers: J.P. Bernbach, Michael Lesslie, Andrew Ruhemann, Stacey Offman, Richard Perello.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Alex Gibney. Camera (color, HD): Mark Garrett, Denis Sinyakov. Editor: Michael J. Palmer. Music: Robert Logan, Ivor Guest.
  • With: Mikhail Khodorkovsky , Leonid Nevzlin, Igor Malashenko, Anton Drel, Maria Logan, Alexei Navalny, Tatyana Lysova, Derk Sauer, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Martin Sixsmith, Arkady Ostrovsky. (English, Russian dialogue)