Produced & Directed by Cyril Tuschi
Released by Kino Lorber Films

English, Russian & German with English subtitles;
Germany. 111 min. Not rated

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 the nation under

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Vladimir 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 archenemy Putin. Instead, it’s to reveal a desperate nation floundering as it reaches for a final post-Communist, post-privatization lifeline.

Khodorkovsky was among the wealthiest of the oligarchs who dominated Russia’s new capitalist economy after the fall of Communism and under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. He was also one of the youngest. In 1995, at age 33, he bought the state-run oil company Yukos for $300 million during the government’s auction of state monopolies, and its later net worth soared to $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 on his own 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, the director offers 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 government on television. 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 lexapro does it get you high generalities about Khodorkovsky being behind bars since he was rightfully convicted in court of serious crimes. Putin even manages to connect him to high profile murders. You literally see Putin biting his tongue to keep his temper in check.

What’s most enlightening about Khodorkovsky is that it treats the man 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—with his first wife, oldest son, his colleagues, legal counsel, and even a cellmate—give us a warts-and-all portrait of a man who, while definitely no angel, is not the monstrous criminal Putin swears he is.

The man himself is onscreen—in news clips, previous interviews, and a brief meeting with the filmmakers in prison as he awaits an appeal that never comes (he was sentenced again for an additional six years at the end of 2010 for money laundering and theft). Khodorkovsky 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.”

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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, 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 Pärt’s moody Los Angeles symphony—dedicated to Khodorkovsky, whom Part considers a true Russian patriot—is another celebrex 200 mg clue to where Tuschi’s sympathies lie in a world populated by anything but black and white heroes and villains.