Review by Sean Boelman
Citizen K, from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), is a new documentary exploring the structure of the Russian oligarchy. Although the film does lose a bit of its steam heading into its second half, it is nonetheless a surprisingly captivating and timely tale of political corruption.
The movie tells the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch who, after skyrocketing to the top of the Russian upper-class in the 1990’s, found himself disgraced, becoming an important rival of Russian president Vladmir Putin. Although stories of a rise and fall from grace are relatively common in film, audiences are unlikely to have seen anything quite like this one.
For the first hour of the movie, audiences will likely be glued to the screen, absorbed by the explanation of the Russian political system. Although there is a lot of complex information communicated in a short period of time, Gibney does an excellent job of detailing the oligarchy in a way that will be mostly accessible and fascinating for general audiences.
However, around the halfway mark, when the film switches focus from exploring the Russian oligarchy to being a commentary on Putin’s leadership, the movie becomes much more conventional. While Khodorkovsky’s perspective is very interesting, hearing him make his political statement is nowhere near as compelling as tracing his rise and fall.
One of the things that the film does extremely well is developing its subject in an ambiguous light. Though the movie is very much anti-Putin, it does not take as clear of a stance on Khodorkovsky. Some see him as a martyr for the anti-Putin cause, whereas others look at him as an upper-class oligarch that exploited the system for his own personal gain and got punished for it. Gibney obviously leans one way, but he allows the audience to come to their own conclusions.
Perhaps most surprising about the film is that the story is actually pretty emotionally resonant. Most political documentaries like this are all about getting the aggressive political message out as quickly and effectively as possible, but Gibney takes the time to show the human impact that these issues have. Even though most viewers will not be directly impacted by the things being discussed, it is easy to sympathize with Gibney’s message.
On a technical level, Gibney’s movie is very strong, crafted in a way that is both extremely entertaining and aesthetically-pleasing. Thanks to razor-sharp editing, Gibney’s film has a natural rhythm to it, even during the somewhat underwhelming second half, that keeps the pacing moving along. The score is also excellent and does a good job of building the mood.
The first half of Citizen K made it seem like it was going to be the best documentary of the year, and while the second half doesn’t quite match up, the movie is still very effective. An important and entertaining political documentary, this is one not to miss.
Citizen K is now playing in theaters.