Citizen K | A Well-Composed, If Somewhat Stuffy Documentary

Citizen K is a documentary by Alex Gibney that covers the corrupt elements of post-Soviet Russian history by telling the story of former oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, from his rise to billionaire oil baron to his current life as an anti-Putin activist living in exile.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Khodorkovsky and several other business-savvy Russians utilized a combination of aggressive tactics, cunning, and outright corruption to accumulate the many formerly public-owned companies and industries before the nation at large, still stunned by the sudden arrival of capitalism, could realize how valuable those commodities would be. As a result, these individuals, the so-called Russian oligarchs, gained an incredible amount of wealth and political power within the Russian system under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990’s. These men advocated for further free market and democratic controls that would ensure the independence of their business interests. But at the same time, Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin sought to consolidate power for his own sake. In the clashes that followed, Putin was ultimately victorious as each oligarch either lost their fortune or fell in line. Khodorkovsky, one of the most vocal critics of Putin, was imprisoned for 10 years and only released as a result of international pressure ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Alex Gibney, Amazon Original, Citizen K, documentary, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, movie review

This is the type of documentary that features all the people you would want to hear from on the topic at hand. Lawyers, journalists, politicians, and businessmen, who were all contemporary to these events and understand the particular Russian way of doing things, provide a robust and frank picture of corruption in the highest offices of the Russian government. For a society as notoriously shadowy as Russia’s, this trove of straightforward accounts is uniquely refreshing. However, these men and women are almost exclusively non-English speaking Russians, which means the film is mostly subtitled. There’s nothing wrong with this approach in theory, but the occasional intrusion of the easily-forgotten English narration causes the viewer to wonder why there is no American or other Western viewpoint represented to break up the lengthy chunks of Russian. It gives the film an air of elitism or inaccessibility that no documentary benefits from. 

Like so many other documentary feature films, I feel as though Citizen K overstays its welcome. A brilliant and attention-grabbing premise gives way to piles of detail and dialogue, eventually landing on some vague or unsatisfying conclusion that falls far short of the mark its high-minded subject matter might suggest.

In summary, Citizen K is interesting and informative for anyone interested in its content, but will disappoint many casual viewers with its length, depth, and other short-comings as a long-form documentary.

About Citizen K

Synopsis: The strange case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once believed to be the wealthiest man in Russia, who rocketed to prosperity and prominence in the 1990s, served a decade in prison, and became an unlikely martyr for the anti-Putin movement.

Director: Alex Gibney

Writer: Alex Gibney

Stars: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Putin

Rated: Not Rated

Run time: 2h 6min

My name is Kevin and I have been writing about movies with GNN since January 2020. Some of my favorite films are Inception, Django Unchained, American Hustle, and Gladiator. I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University in May 2018. I am currently self-employed in e-commerce and live in Tempe, Arizona. In my free time, you can probably find me slinging spells in Magic: the Gathering or dusting off a retro video game console (Super Nintendo is my favorite).

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