Cinema Review: Citizen K

Posted December 10, 2019 in Cinema Reviews

Citizen K

Director: Alex Gibney

Release: 13 December

Alex Gibney’s latest documentary charts the transformation of oil oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, into a fully-fledged political dissident, brave enough to be a torn in Putin’s side. This results in a ten-year prison sentence in Siberia for Khodorkovsky, which makes him more clear-eyed about what matters in life. He now lives in London, exiled, and potentially, in danger – stories of Putin’s enemies being poisoned in England have been flooding the news recently.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Khodorkovsky was only too happy to welcome capitalism. With his moral compass not developed yet, Khodorkovsky availed of a newly capitalist Russia, where the law hasn’t quite caught up yet, a “wild-west period” the violent result.

Though I suspect Gibney admires his subject, he manages to just about avoid this being a fawning hagiography with critical voices getting their say. What makes Khodorkovsky such an interesting figure is his how contradictory he is, at once capable of cynicism and heroic idealism. One of the reasons he can’t return to Russia is Putin issued a warrant for his arrest for the 1998 murder of Vladimir Petukhov, a Siberian small-town mayor. While Gibney keeps the question open, it seems he leans towards believing Khodorkovsky.

Khodorkovsky first became mega-rich as the proprietor of Russia’s first private bank in the Yeltsin ‘90s. Most ignominiously, he bought up state-issued vouchers supposed to give people a share in the free market, pure Gangster-Capitalism. Still, though no angel, his behaviour was endemic of how grasping the wealthy were in a newly democratic Russia.

If I have one criticism of the film, perhaps Gibney is a victim of his own enthusiasm, with the narrative feeling a bit overstuffed at the end, taking the story to the macrocosmic, but even then, I was never less than totally absorbed.

Riveting and propulsive, Citizen K tells the story of an individual’s redemption while also providing us with a lesson in Russian in history that serves as a cautionary tale about the political theatre that is now taking place there.

Gibney has made many impressive documentaries, but Citizen K is one of his strangest and most distinctive. Strongly recommended.

Words: Rory Kiberd


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