Filmmaker Alex Gibney does not shy away from complexity, quite the contrary. As the compelling “Citizen K,” his latest documentary, demonstrates yet again, when tough, complicated subject matter needs to be dealt with, Gibney and his team invariably take it on.
From his breakthrough film, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” through his Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” Gibney has specialized in helping audiences understand situations that define daunting.
In “Citizen K,” the task is two-fold, starting with the attempt to paint a portrait of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who went from being the richest man in Russia to spending nearly a decade in prison, someone who made the unlikely transition from reviled oligarch to his current life as a leading dissident living in exile in Britain.
More than that, “Citizen K” uses Khodorkovsky’s story as a way to guide us through the thickets of modern Russian history, a tangled, through-the-looking-glass world that the film surveys from the days of Boris Yeltsin in 1991 to today’s increasingly autocratic reign of Vladimir Putin.
The key to Gibney’s success in both areas is his two dozen hours of candid interview footage with the elusive Khodorkovsky, who comes across as a disarming man of exceptional self-possession, intelligence and grasp. When a journalist describes him as “decisive with great vision,” it is hard to disagree.
Gibney and his team also came up with his usual trove of archival footage as well as other face-to-face interviews, including with Khodorkovsky’s personal attorney, Anton Drel, and insightful journalists like former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and Derk Sauer, founder of the English language Moscow Times.
Though “Citizen K” begins with a glimpse forward to its central event, Khodorkovsky’s initial trial in 2003, its narrative proper begins in 1991 with Yeltsin starting his first term as president of the Russian Federation.
Yeltsin seemed to be a believer in Western-style democracy as well as a promoter of a transition to capitalism, and it was during his tenure that Khodorkovsky, who grew up poor but always viewed business as a game he was especially good at, opened one of Russia’s first commercial banks.
Also debuting under Yeltsin was a plan to create government vouchers that would be given to ordinary Russians to allow them a chance to buy partial ownership of previously state-owned businesses.
What eventually happened, aided by corrupt practices and lax enforcement of laws, was a period that came to be known as Wild West capitalism, where a small number of men, called oligarchs, gained control of 50% of Russia’s economy.
Khodorkovsky was one of these men, and he managed to take over Yukos, the state oil monopoly, for some $300 million, even though its value at the time was $5 billion. As we see him admit in an early newsreel clip, he felt it was good to be greedy.
While Khodorkovsky initially was as ruthless as he needed to be, he became affected by the human costs of what business success demanded, building, in Sauer’s view, “one of the best oil companies in the world.”
At the same time, Putin was rising in Russian politics. Khodorkovsky and his fellow oligarchs thought he was a democrat in the Yeltsin mold, but, the exile allows with a small, regretful smile, “I was mistaken.”
Putin proved especially adept at amassing power. He allowed the oligarchs to make money as long as they stayed away from politics, but when the newly involved Khodorkovsky decided to confront him, everything changed.
In a Soviet-style move, Khodorkovsky was tried for embezzlement and tax fraud in a scenario that had the look of a classic show trial. He could have fled, but he characteristically refused, explaining to Gibney, “I don’t value life that much to exchange it for losing respect.”
After his time in prison, there were still more twists left in Khodorkovsky’s story, including a second trial, an unexpected pardon from Putin, a gain in public stature, a relocation to London and a likely trumped-up murder charge that still stands in the way of his returning to Russia.
Though it’s impossible to ignore “Citizen K’s” nod to “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ tale of a businessman who also involved himself in politics, seeing this involving film leads to the feeling that, however unconventional, Khodorkovsky’s path to becoming a small d democrat was a sincere one.
“I am not an ideal person,” he admits on camera at one point, “but I am a person with ideals.” Where will he end up? It will likely take a future documentary to bring us up to speed on that.
In Russian with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles