'Citizen K': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A riveting political thriller with uneasy echoes close to home.

Oscar-winning documaker Alex Gibney traces the rise and fall of dissident exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in this scalding portrait of Putin's Russia.

With typically zealous journalistic diligence, prolific nonfiction filmmaker Alex Gibney digs into the curious case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K, providing a lucidly accessible account of post-Soviet Russia's lurching transition out of Communism into a free-market economy that became a Wild West of gangster capitalism. The short hop from there to the faux democracy of Vladimir Putin, with his flimsy "election theater" and his 18-year stranglehold on the Kremlin, is a chilling cautionary tale. And although only glancing references are made to the Mueller investigation and Russia's U.S. election manipulation, anyone aware of Donald Trump's deference toward Putin will feel a certain queasiness watching this insidious saga unfold.

Khodorkovsky is a charismatic subject with a still-mischievous twinkle in his eye even after serving 10 years in a Siberian prison, making him a marvelously ambiguous antihero for documentary treatment. At one time believed to be the richest man in Russia, he was a product of the chaos that took hold in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost era, when Boris Yeltsin's presidency would create the opportunity for a mere seven avaricious businessmen to monopolize 50 percent of the national economy. This they achieved by exploiting public naivety about the value of state-issued vouchers, which the oligarchs were able to buy cheap and use as currency in privatization schemes.

By the time of Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign, the country was an economic shambles, the incumbent president's health was failing and his government on the verge of collapse. But the oligarchs so feared a return to Communism driven by disgruntled voters that they engineered a win for the malleable Yeltsin by using television, a medium that one of them, Igor Malashenko, had only recently finagled away from government control. The president struck a Faustian bargain by accepting loans from the oligarchs that the state could never repay, thus enabling them to snap up Russia's most valuable assets.

Meanwhile, free-enterprise business had proved a game for which Khodorkovsky had a talent. He had created Russia's first commercial bank and, in his biggest deal, acquired control of a group of Siberian oil fields under the name of Yukos, paying $310 million in a dummy auction for an operation valued in the billions. He streamlined the inefficient local oil companies into a conglomerate to compete on the global market, even if the workers seldom saw the benefits.

A cloud appeared over his empire when Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of a Siberian oil town who had stood up to Yukos over tax evasion, was shot dead on Khodorkovsky's 35th birthday. While Chechen thugs initially were blamed, the Russian government much later pointed to Khodorkovsky and his right-hand man Leonid Nevzlin as architects of the contract killing — an arrest warrant forces Khodorkovsky to remain in exile in London. His vague assertion in present-day interviews that he was too busy at the time to pay much attention to the Petukhov murder doesn't inspire much confidence. But then nor does a charge leveled by Putin and his stooges.

Around the time of the Yukos acquisition, Putin had gone from being a minor KGB official, via some shady-sounding moves in the Saint Petersburg city administration, to the Kremlin, where he was swiftly shimmying up the ladder. Positioned by the oligarchs to succeed Yeltsin, he projected the kind of tough-guy image the dispirited country needed.

In Khodorkovsky's assessment, Putin had a quintessential KGB talent for convincing whomever he was with — liberal, moderate, conservative — that he was a like-minded ally. But Putin began clashing with Khodorkovsky once the latter started publicly expressing divergent political views and hinting at state corruption. The balance shifted and the brash new government leader began snatching back power from the oligarchs to position his own people in the sphere of influence, eventually going after Khodorkovsky. Arrested on fraud charges, Khodorkovsky was subjected to a series of show trials and shipped off to a Siberian prison for a decade, his assets seized and sold back via shadow companies to the state. Fresh trumped-up charges were brought against him once he neared release, resulting in an even more farcical trial.

While there are a lot of names, facts and intriguing assertions to absorb here, Gibney and editor Michael Palmer weave the dense narrative into a brisk, gripping and fascinatingly detailed thriller, enhanced by Robert Logan and Ivor Guest's suspenseful score.

The film suggests that while prison taught Khodorkovsky compassion and humanity, and public perception slowly shifted to view him as a man of ideals, power made Putin steadily more authoritarian. The final sections are marginally less satisfying given that the story doesn't yet have an ending. It was crucial to Putin that Khodorkovsky leave the country once he was finally released, and while the arrest warrant prevents him from returning, he continues funneling his offshore wealth into Open Russia, a human rights organization pushing for free and fair elections. Success has been marginal to date, but with the smile of a sly fox, Khodorkovsky reveals that he's playing a long game and that Putin's travesty of democracy one day will crumble: "Maybe five years, maybe 10."

Production companies: Passion Pictures, Jigsaw Productions, Storyteller Productions
Director-writer: Alex Gibney
Producers: John Battsek, Alex Gibney, P.J. Sandwijk, George Chignell, Erin Edeiken
Executive producers: J.P. Bernbach, Michael Lesslie, Andrew Ruhemann, Stacey Offman, Richard Perello
Directors of photography: Mark Garrett, Denis Sinyakov
Music: Robert Logan, Ivor Guest
Editor: Michael Palmer
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: Kew Media

126 minutes