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Thread: CITIZEN K (Alex Gibney 2019)

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    CITIZEN K (Alex Gibney 2019)

    ALEX GIBNEY: CITIZEN K (2019)


    MIKHAIL KHODORKOVSKY FROM CITIZEN K

    Russia's bad new days seen through the turbulent life of its dissenting oligarch

    Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the "Citizen K" of the Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney's informative new documentary, was one of the seven billionaire "oligarchs" who took control of the Russian economy in the Nineties after the fall of communism. He became a martyr of the movement to resist Vladimir Putin's dictatorship. Through tracing Khodorkovsky's career, leading to great wealth, then ten years in prison, now exile in London, we get a personalized look at the spectacular disaster that is contemporary Russia. Khodorkovsky is a major participant in telling his own story and Russia's to the camera. This is one of the prolific Gibney's best and most essential documentaries since The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007). Not quite up to their level, and a little long, but meaty, and enhanced by its many gorgeous, clean-looking digital landscapes of Russia. (If it repeats a certain passage of Mussorgsky/Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition a little too often, that's forgivable.)

    Obviously, it's worth a look, and by the way, when it gets to gaze in other directions than talking heads and archival footage, this is a very good looking film. It begins with splendid panoramic vistas of where the Russian oil fields of Khodorkovsky's company were, backed by a stirring choral piece that expresses vastness in deeply Russian terms.

    What happened after the fall of communism? Yeltsin was a key factor. He was the democratic leader. But he was in terrible shape having a series of heart attacks. Furthermore, the failed government couldn't pay the state employees, and nobody who wasn't mega-rich had any money, so the public was ready to vote the communists back in. To save democracy through Yeltsin, the seven oligarchs were needed. And when they'd muscled Yeltsin back in, as their reward the oligarchs took over big chunks of government.

    The real fall of democracy, or the fact that it never took hold, was due to multiple factors. To begin with, Russians had never known democracy for 500 years, so it was a difficult concept. But the key reason was economics. Untrammeled economic activity destroyed the possibility of democratic life. The government's voucher investment system allowed its main properties to be sold off rapidly. In this process, only the strong survived.

    In the rapid, crazy sell-out of Russian communism, the seven oligarchs got to buy all the government-owned enterprises. Together they owned 50% of the country's wealth. All this was theft and totally criminal in the brief "Wild West" period of post-communism. But these men were smart as well as ruthless (and in Khodorkovsky's case, handsome too). Khodorkovsky's special interest was oil, the most important industry in the country. Through devious means, he acquired and built up Yukos, the biggest oil company. Khodorkovsky, unlike the other oligarchs, who steered clear of it, also took an interest in politics, which he pursued in his own fearless and smiling manner. Thus he became a special object of dislike for Putin. He openly declared that he wanted to build "a normal democratic society." That wasn't going to work. Putin also didn't like Khodorkovsky's overtures to merge with the American oil giant, Exxon - an insult to Russia.

    When the TV stations became privately owned, Khodorkovsky was in on that, so he had a voice. Putin stopped that. He took back the TV stations, and proved good at putting out a positive image of himself. He set about to bring the oligarchs to heel, but particularly Khodorkovsky, who was the wealthiest of them. The public hated the oligarchs, and approved. In 2003 Khodorkovsky went to jail for fraud and embezzlement and Yukos was auctioned off and went to the government oil company Rosneft. The tide was turned back. The trial was a crock, because everybody had broken the same laws at the time, 1990-2003.

    Khodorkovsky was sent to Krasnokermensk, a prison near the Chinese border, in the middle of nowhere. He spent over ten years there - years he now sees as having taught him patience and giving him vision. At the end of that time, when the government sought another trial against him on even more absurd, trumped up charges - they accused him of stealing all the oil his company had produced (what would he have done with it?) - the public was outraged and became his supporters. In 2013 Putin set him free, ostensibly on humanitarian grounds to be with his ill and dying mother. Shortly after, he moved to London and started an anti-Putin group, Open Russia, which he funds. He doesn't have the $15 billion he once was valued at, but managed to hold onto around $400 million, maybe now half a billion. Not much, but he gets by. He probably can handle London's high rents

    Open Russia remains active, but it's hard for Khodorkovsky to pursue his cause, not for want of funds but because he isn't on the ground, and is hidden from Russian TV and media. The younger generation finds him though, online. Now he has been charged with killing Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, where Yukos is, and would be jailed for life if he returned. It seems this was actually done by government agents. This is also a running picture of Putin's rise and the solidifying of his dictatorial power, shored up by a naive citizenry who feel he makes Russia secure. Many images of Putin in the film give us a better idea of how he dominates Russian life than we get from here. Take the folksiness of George Bush Jr., double it, and add belligerence.

    Khodorkovsky, who is now 56, knows that London has lately proven to be a particularly unsafe place for Russians: many have been offed there. Open Russia's Russian offices have been invaded and shut down, and so has Khodorkovsky's Russian website and Twitter account. Russia's official TV spokespeople, who as seen here remind one of Fox News' most loudmouthed, ranting performers, keep up the anti-K propaganda. But he has opened a new group, called Dossier.

    However unscrupulously Khodorkovsky behaved in becoming a billionaire, this film shows him to be a man of courage and principle today. He stays true to his anti-Putin campaign and he has an ally in Russia, presidential candidate and media personality Ksenia Sobchak, whom Putin ignores because he think's she's harmless. Perhaps less so Alexei Novalny, another anti-Putin campaigner.

    Purtn, after 18 years in power and another sham election, with people in the provinces worshiping him, seems more powerful than ever. But Khodorkovsky thinks he lives in fear of forces to come to get him at the Kremlin, and, being patient after his decade in prison, is ready to wait for that moment to go back and fight on Russian soil for democracy there.

    Citizen K, 126 mins., debuted at Venice, also playing at Toronto, London, Warsaw, the Hamptons, AFI, and Rio. Its US theatrical release begins Jan. 15-28, 2020 (Film Forum), San Francisco Jan. 24. Current Metascore 77%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-13-2020 at 04:45 PM.

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    CITIZEN K begins at Film Forum today and runs till Jan. 28th.

    With 14 reviews it now has a Metacritic rating of 77%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 01-15-2020 at 09:15 PM.

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