Film Review: Citizen K


Alex Gibney returns with this gripping study of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch-turned-activist who was sentenced to nine years in prison after challenging Vladimir Putin. Power corrupts, the saying goes, but in Gibney’s new documentary, ultimate power – or at least the kind wielded by the once-richest man in Russia – appears to have an altogether more purifying effect.

Though it premiered earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival, the UK release of Citizen K couldn’t be more timely. As Great Britain grapples with the long-term consequences of the recent general election, the long, dark shadow of Russian interference in global politics looms; in this context, Gibney’s historical study is the perfect, bitter film of the moment.

His subject, the ultra-rich oil tycoon who made his fortune from the so-called ‘gangster capitalism’ of the post-Soviet era to become one of Russia’s seven wealthiest oligarchs, is not what one might expect of one of the Russian premier’s fiercest and ultimately most fearless opponents. Indeed, for much of Citizen K, Khodorosvksy comes across as arrogant, self-serving and singularly driven. Through a mixture of archival footage and newly-filmed interviews, he speaks of his rise during the early wild-west days of Russian capitalism – characterised by extortion, terror and political influence – with a degree of detached amusement, evidently still quite pleased at his canniness to make out very well from the chaos.

As a documentary, Citizen K is dually-layered: at once a historical film about Russia’s post-Soviet period, its chaotic capitalist expansion and the almost immediate corruption of its politics and a character study of political alpha masculinity. Picking up largely where last year’s Herzog-directed Meeting Gorbachev left off (though much less in thrall to its subject), Citizen K is an effective potted history of Boris Yeltsin’s embarrassing, deeply corrupt Presidency and the rise of Vladimir Putin, whom Gibney casts as both a shrewd manipulator and unhinged narcissist.

Smartly, Gibney doesn’t opt for a redemptive arc for Khordorovsky – this is not quite the story of rapacious capitalism seeing the light of the common good – but rather of an extremely driven man motivated by complex, competing and often contradictory factors. The extent of his historical role in the assassination of Russian mayor Vladimir Petukhov, for example, is left tantalisingly unresolved.

The urges and talents that took him into the ultimate sphere of power now drive Khodorovsky to openly criticise Putin, to mock the kangaroo court sentencing him to nine years on trumped-up charges of fraud, and finally to continue attacking the Russian premier in exile in London. Indeed, in Khodorkovsky’s drive, there is a sense of a fire redirected from its destructive tendencies towards something more positive, if still dangerous. In all this, there is an implicit if undeveloped criticism of the way that power and capital are so often the spoils of posturing masculine insecurity.

Christopher Machell |@MachellFilm