AFI Fest 2019: Citizen K, by David Bax
Nearing the end of the decade, there’s been a lot of looking back at trends and changes. One of the less remarked upon developments of the 2010s is the advent of affordable drone cameras that gave modest filmmakers the sudden ability to include in their movies shots that would have previous required the renting of a helicopter at the least. No mode of filmmaking has benefited more from this perceived increase in production value than the documentary and no documentarian has embraced it more effectively than Alex Gibney. When all is said and done, the shots from Going Clear that soar up and over the big blue Scientology building on Los Angeles’ Fountain Avenue may be among the defining images of the last ten years of cinema. So when Citizen K, Gibney’s newest, opens with a drone flying over an oil field’s flare stack, you know you’re in for another interesting, informative and ultimately antiseptic presentation on recent history. For better or worse, Gibney has become an auteur.
Citizen K is, ostensibly, about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian banker, oil tycoon and politically active oligarch who has been living in exile since Vladimir Putin’s government has accused him of murder. Really, though, it’s an overview of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union and how, despite still claiming to be a democracy, the nation’s experiment in that form of governance failed almost immediately, replaced by a system in which a strongman de facto dictator and a handful of wealthy businessmen run the country by mostly staying out of each other’s business. Khodorkovsky, a member of that second group, earned Putin’s ire by breaking that unspoken covenant of noninterference. For the record, though, he may very well be guilty of murder nonetheless, an inconvenient fact Gibney is compelled to recognize.
Gibney is an entertainer as well as an instructor. Thus, there’s a superficial emotional component to his films that often make them seem more substantial than they actually are. With Citizen K, Gibney wants to pretend he’s making some sort of espionage thriller; the opening titles unconventionally list the documentary’s major subjects as if they are a cast of characters. But, ultimately, Gibney is more journalist than storyteller. At least he’s a good journalist, though, organizing and presenting information in the most effective ways possible. Despite his occasional dashes of razzle-dazzle, Gibney has, I note with relief, never been disingenuous, unlike some of the other big names in modern, mainstream documentary.
Gibney’s ethical struggle in Citizen K is that he appears to like Khodorkovsky, even as he recognizes the damage he has done to the Russian people (and may have done directly to at least one Russian person in particular). This struggle happens off camera, though, left for us to infer. What’s on camera, in this case, is Gibney himself and more often than usual. His narration features more use of the word “I” and the film more of his own image than we may be accustomed to. Perhaps this is his way of acknowledging his own complicity in presenting Khodorkovsky as an ally in the anti-Putin agenda (which he is) while avoiding reckoning with the man’s j crimes and the fact that his opposition to Russia’s president has more to do with his own greed than with any respectable ideals.
However you end up feeling about Gibney by the end of the movie, it’s undeniable that this is a vital document of our current global times. From Putin to Donald Trump to Boris Johnson to Jair Bolsonaro to (as seen in the much better recent documentary The Kingmaker) the Marcos family, the gullibility of poor, uneducated, struggling people has paved the way for the international rule of terrible people. Citizen K is ambivalent when it comes to recognizing that Khodorkovsky is one of them but it is, undeniably, another representative work from Gibney.