By Christopher Bell | The Playlist November 30, 2011 at 11:03AM
Find a fascinating topic and you're halfway there. Plenty of docs ride high on their subjects and give little more to the piece than interview segments, cartoon chapter markers, or ambien-coated narration. Hell, "An Inconvenient Truth" was little more than a filmed slide-show presentation and it went on to win an Academy Award.
So it's always gratifying when a filmmaker goes a little further with their non-fictional project; even something like capturing a story with a cinema-verite/fly-on-the-wall approach is fresher, and more and more exciting. With "Khodorkovsky," filmmaker Cyril Tuschi crafts an engaging tale about one of capitalist Russia's first billionaires, an oligarch thought to be wrongfully imprisoned for baseless claims of tax fraud. Intriguingly enough, the self-made business man has openly stated that he knew he would be arrested upon his return to country after a brief holiday -- so why did he go back? It's with the latter mindset that Tuschi looks at this tale, constructing it as both an informative piece and a highly engaging mystery.
For those who know very little about the man, the story begins with Mikhail Khodorkovsky as nothing more than a dutiful student of chemistry and a high leader in his university's communist group. Using his connections and smarts (and a relatively small amount of cash -- $200,000), him and a few partners decided to open one of the earliest private banks in the country, Bank Menatep. This new, wealthy group impressed the government so much that they handed over the oil company Yukos to them, a business responsible for a great portion of the economy, and clearly in better hands locally as opposed to foreign investors. Of course, they had no rights -- technically, the Kremlin still owned it -- but Khodorkovsky made an enormous amount of cash and Russia was pleased that they had their very own hand-picked gang of super-rich. Now on top of the world, Mikhail and his posse resided in their own gated community, complete with a staff on hand, not to mention a pool and a park. Not too shabby.
However, the music stopped at about the time Vladimir Putin took office. The two men seemed to get along at first, but the President noticed his outspoken behavior and swiftly warned him to "stay out of politics" and, most importantly, to "not support the opposition." It was a deal that was broken before it even started -- he had sharp critiques for the system and went so far as to call Putin out on television over government corruption. After this messy situation and his new hobby of establishing relationships with other Western elite (possible investors for Yukos), the relationship was over. Khodorkovsky was accused of avoiding taxes, embezzlement, and even ordering a hit on a mayor who was giving his company trouble. After visiting his son at an American college, he was detained and sent to a penal colony in Siberia.
While the film is largely comprised of interviews (a colorful collection of family, ex-partners, and former Russian and German politicians), animated segments, and letters by the jailed subject written to the director, Tuschi plays the conspiracy factor hard and structures the movie on this rather intriguing element. Maybe he could've been a bit more even-handed in his scrutiny (and maybe those cartoon bits are a little too comic-book-hero-esque), but there's no denying that there's plenty to back up the argument that the billionaire was wrongfully imprisoned -- as it chugs along, we're left wondering not only how the hell they got away with it, but why he just didn't stay out of the country when he knew shit was going to hit the fan. The director keenly saves his actual interview with Khodorkovsky for the end, and he's very open about his situation and his possible naivety in standing up for his rights. Maybe he believed too much in justice, he ponders.
With such a heavy amount of information to administer, it's not only surprising how easily digestible it is, but how quickly the film moves. Of course, the thriller/mystery genre elements that the director dabbles in definitely help the pacing, but it's also the very minor tweaks to the rather conventional frameworks that prevent the movie from getting stale. Interviews are spiced up with locations unique to the person -- see the ex-Yukos partner in a different country, paranoid, and being interviewed at outside at a busy restaurant -- which doesn't just make things different for entertainment's sake, but adds another layer to the material they divulge. And though Tuschi admittedly doesn't do enough with the cinematography, the establishing panning shot of the wintery Russian landscape feels barren and uninviting, setting the tone well. It's further rattled by an accidental-but-probably-staged framing of a few teenagers, a trio who have no idea who Khodorkovsky is when questioned for an opinion. Well, except for one, who assuredly states that he was the guy that "stole a lot of money from Russia." Now, the quest to properly tell the billionaire's story begins -- a clever way to initiate his agenda as opposed to a series of title cards.
Focusing on a rather captivating story, "Khodorkovsky" is both entertaining and intelligent, a documentary paced well, and thankfully not to the detriment of its substance. Maybe he's made out to be too much of a martyr in some of its sections, and maybe it could've gone a bit further to shake up the norms, but at the end of the day it's a solid little piece, one that is likely to elicit discussions and further research on the topic. When a movie achieves that, you can't really argue with results. [B]