Friday, January 10, 2020

Alex Gibney's back with CITIZEN K, his look at Russian ex-oligarch and current political dissident, Mikhail Khodorkovsky

For any documentary fans lucky enough to have seen the 2011 KHODORKOVSKY -- German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi's movie about the then-imprisoned Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- the new film, CITIZEN K, by prodigious documentarian Alex Gibney (90 producing credits and 47 for directing), which brings the Khodorkovsky story pretty much up to date, will be a must-see. Even, I suspect, for doc fans who may not know much about the life and career of this very unusual fellow who went from being one of the wealthiest people in the world to a Russian political prisoner in Siberia for ten years and has now become the Kremlin's most famous critic-in-exile, from his these-days home in London.

Given the murderous yen of current Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for doing away with his political nay-sayers, both in Russia and abroad, your biggest question while viewing either of these Khodorkovsky-themed docs will probably be: How come this guy is still alive?

Best guess, since neither director goes into this question head on, is that making a martyr out of this man might do more harm than good to Putin and his hold on power. Either way, Mr. Gibney, shown at right, does his usual job of intelligent, professional movie-making that pulls us in, gives us plenty of information and ideas to keep us involved, and does not settle for simple hagiography in offering up Khodorkovsky (shown above and below) as a possible hero. Sure, what this man has done -- some of this certainly odd but also oddly heroic -- was in many ways good for Russia and its populace, even while making him a very rich fellow.

Gibney lets Khodorkovsky's great intelligence, discipline and bravery shine through, never more so than when he accepts his arrest and prison term (on utterly jacked-up and ridiculous charges that are shown to be even more stupid via his subsequent "trials"), rather than fleeing the country, as other Russian oligarchs immediately did when Putin revealed his true, power-hungry colors.

One of Gibney's smartest moves is to offer some fairly recent Russian history, along with the country's change from Communism (via Gorbachev and then Yeltsin) to a form of Capitalism, Russian-style, complete with beaucoup bloodshed that soon morphed into another under-the-thumb dictatorship (thanks to Putin), which has proven less crazy and murderous than that of Joe Stalin but nonetheless is a nasty, nationalisitic white/male/heterosoexual dictatorship all the same -- unfortunately one that seems to have the approval of far too many Russians.

Via archival footage and current interviews with journalists, politicians, and the man himself, we learn how Khodorkovsky dealt with his time in prison, and how, after it, he became even more of the political dissident than before. On the debit side, the man maybe has a lot to answer for, including his possible involvement in the murder of the mayor of a town near one of his oil fields. We learn about this in degrees, but I wish Gibney had asked Khodorkovsky directly whether he had any involvement. Not that we would learn the definitive answer, but it might have been interesting to watch and listen to him and what he has to say.

Otherwise, by the time we reach the conclusion of this 126-minute movie, we've seen and heard enough to place us pretty firmly in Khodorkovsky's corner. The earlier and shorter by-15-minutes documentary gave us quite a bit more of K's family/childhood history. As I stated in my review of that film and stand by after seeing this second one, the man seems to me to be a genuine Russian patriot -- not in the vile, nationalistic sense but in a manner that cries out for something approaching a more real democracy, available to all. Which these days, come to think of it, we could use here in the USA, too.

Distributed theatrically via Greenwich Entertainment, in English and Russian with English subtitles, Citizen K is said  to have opened in Los Angeles this week and will hit New York City on Wednesday, January 15, for a two-week run at Film Forum. Elsewhere? Click here to learn more about where and when. As you can see from the poster, top, the film is billed as an "Amazon original," so if you can't view in a theater, you can probably catch it eventually via Prime.

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