Saturday, December 3, 2011

Railroaded by Putin?

Directed by Cyril Tuschi
Released by Kino Lorber; opens December 2, 2011

For anyone who’s followed the past decade’s political events in Russia even slightly, the documentary Khodorkovsky won’t be very surprising or revelatory. That that nation under Putin’s iron fist is not only corrupt and corrupted is not news at this late date. But that’s not the point of director Cyril Tuschi’s sympathetic portrait of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian billionaire unceremoniously tossed into prison by his arch-enemy Putin. Instead, it’s to reveal a desperate nation floundering as it reaches for a final post-Communist, post-privatization lifeline.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky was among the wealthiest of the oligarchs who dominated Russia’s new capitalist economy after the fall of Communism led to Perestroika under President Yeltsin. He was also one of the youngest: in 1995, at age 33, he bought the oil company Yukos for $300 million during the government’s auction of state monopolies, and its later net worth was $6 billion.

But Khodorkovsky, who knew that great wealth equaled great power in post-Soviet Russia, overstepped his bounds: he started negotiating with foreign companies himself and--the biggest sin of all--directly challenged Putin at the Kremlin, something not taken lightly. So, in 2003, when the oil magnate was arrested and, after what’s been described as a trumped-up trial on charges of tax evasion, sentenced to prison, the obvious culprit was Putin himself.

In his well-researched and thoroughly absorbing account of the amoral mess that Putin’s Russia has become, Tuschi offers up Khodorkovsky as Exhibit A: just look at the hatred in Putin’s eyes and the figurative steam coming out of his ears when the billionaire dared to prod him about widespread corruption in Putin’s own government during a televised press meeting. A later sequence shows another priceless moment during a nationally televised speech: Putin is asked a question by the moderator (apparently from an anonymous viewer via the internet) about when Khodorkovsky will be released and it takes all the self-control the president can muster to spit out generalities about his being behind bars since he was convicted in court of serious crimes. Putin even manages to connect him to high-profile murders. You can literally see Putin biting his tongue to keep his temper in check.

What’s most enlightening about Khodorkovsky is that it treats Khodorkovsky fairly, showing his quick rise to wealth and power but never taking a stance that he was blameless for any misdeeds: after all, he rose to prominence by being a relentless businessman. The included interviews--his first wife and oldest son, his colleagues, legal counsel, even if cell mate--give us a warts-and-all portrait of a man who, while definitely no angel, is not the monstrous criminal Putin swears he is.

When the man himself is onscreen--in news clips, previous interviews and a brief interview that the filmmakers are granted in prison as he awaits an appeal that never comes (he was actually re-sentenced to additional time at the end of last year)--he comes across as supremely intelligent and just the slightest bit arrogant: but, as we know from the Donald among other American oligarchs, that comes with the territory.

Tuschi’s sympathy for the imprisoned billionaire doesn’t blind him to the contradictions inherent in the “free Khodorkovsky” movement that has sprung up around the world. (There’s even a clip of then-President Bush questioning the appropriateness of the incarceration; of course, there‘s also a clip of Khodorkovsky hobnobbing with Bush beforehand.) Indeed, a human rights lawyer freely admits: “It’s the first time I’ve defended a capitalist, but even they have human rights.”

On a purely formal level, Tuschi’s film (which he shot himself) has a clean, classical elegance that underscores the moral messiness of the movie’s major players. Tuschi opens and closes Khodorkovsky with stunning, matching slow panning shots of a vast, beautiful expanse of snowy tundra, and includes brilliantly illustrative (and smartly infrequent) animated sequences. The inspired use of Estonian composer Arvo Part’s moody Los Angeles Symphony--dedicated to Khodorkovsky, whom Part considers a true Russian patriot--is another clue to where Tuschi’s own sympathies lie in a world populated by anything but black and white heroes and villains.

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