Citizen K Movie Review
Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney is back. Bored of focusing on the corruption of America (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Casino Jack, Client 9 and The Inventor), he’s shifted his attention Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchs in Citizen K, an absorbing, informative re-education on the short-lived, post-Soviet Russian democracy and its quick descent into dictatorship.
Citizen K specifically focuses on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia and now an effectively exiled enemy of Putin and unlikely icon for a better, more democratic motherland.
Gibney takes a straightforward approach to his story, walking through the early days of Russian democracy--beginning in 1991--and outlining the rise of the oligarchs, a small group of men who, new to capitalism but not to greed, managed to assume massive amounts of money and power at the expense of others. They in turn played a pivotal role in the rise of Putin, unwittingly giving way to a ruthless and corrupt leader who leads Russia to this day.
Khodorkovsky is a complex protagonist. Though in his later years he is seen as a hero, a fighter for justice, freedom, and democracy, he too has done plenty of bad things. Gibney doesn’t shy away from the detrimental aspects of his subject, though one could argue he is still shown through rose-colored glasses, a beacon of hope and defiance never mind all the lives he likely destroyed and the people he took advantage of in the 1990s.
What Gibney really wants to show, it seems, is that Putin is a bad man, a dictator, a corrupt politician who will lie to your face and smile about it. As commanding as Citizen K is, as engrossing as its story is throughout, you can’t shake an inevitable feeling: yeah, no fucking shit.
What is the exact purpose of Citizen K? What is the message Gibney is trying to send to us? That Putin is bad, and that at least some Russians know about it? That one of Russia’s oligarchs is helping to fund democractic movements within the country, but has little direct influence?
It’s not entirely clear what compelled Gibney to tell this story, now.
Even still, as someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s, who was fascinated as a child by the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, I found Citizen K extremely detailed and often incredibly interesting. As intrigued as I was as a kid, I of course didn’t care to know the political intricacies of the country, the power struggles, how money flow and how capitalism became corrupted so instantly. Citizen K tells that story in a compelling, straightforward way, and it’s hard to deny that Gibney has once again made an excellent documentary. Even if its underlying message is preaching to the choir.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.