Citizen K (Alex Gibney, 2019): UK, USA

Reviewed by Jacob Baldwin. Viewed at AFI festival 2019.
Citizen K PosterAs a history nerd with a fascination for foreign countries, I immediately was drawn into Citizen K. The film is a very interesting and well made documentary about the history of modern Russia and more specifically, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or Citizen K.
The film begins with a shot of a snowy oil refinery and a mysterious voice narrating in Russian, “What I love about the oil industry is its size”. A dramatic Russian symphony wails and the dark tone of the movie is immediately set.
Citizen K is a documentary, but it has many elements that are reminiscent of a three act dramatic feature. The film has a dramatic, beautiful and spooky soundtrack that guides the viewer’s emotions and attention throughout. The story of Khodorkovsky also is crazy and amazing enough to be a dramatic film in its own right.
The first “act” of the documentary describes Khodorkovsky’s childhood and early business ventures. A genius chemist, Khodorkovsky went into banking at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and eventually went on to create one of the biggest oil empires in Russia. This part of the film gives insight into a wild time in Russian history, and lovers of history will undoubtedly be interested.
The second “act” of the film shows the fall of Khodorkovsky and his imprisonment. The historical footage is very educational, and the fortitude of Khodorkovsky portrays him a like-able character to the audience.

Finally in the third act, Khodorkovsky is released and exiled to the UK, where he finds redemption as a political activist.

Citizen K is a documentary, but it is not dry and boring; on the contrary, it is very engaging and appealing, and even suspenseful and funny. Alex Gibney interviews several first hand associates and witnesses to Khodorkovsky, and rather than making an explicit argument, he lets the facts speak for themselves. This objectivity is key to a good documentary, and unfortunately seems to be missing in many documentaries.

By the end of the film, Khodorkovsky has earned some respect from the audience, but there remain doubtful and murky aspects to his character. While the film essentially champions Khodorkovsky, it doesn’t hide what he really is – a ruthless and cunning businessman.

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