The verdict: Criminally inaneBy Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012
"What are you filming?" director Cyril Tuschi is asked by a group of Russian teenagers at the beginning of his documentary about jailed Russian business magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky. When the German filmmaker tells them his subject, only one of the three has even heard of the guy.
"He stole a lot of money from Russia," the kid states, by way of explanation.
That's where "Khodorkovsky" starts, with a vague if confidently delivered definition of a man whom a lot of Americans probably know nothing about either, despite Khodorkovsky having been, before his 2003 arrest and imprisonment for tax evasion in Siberia, one of the richest men in newly capitalist Russia.
Unfortunately, the movie ends - nearly two hours later - in a place of even greater uncertainty. If you're looking for an answer to the question "Who is Mikhail Khodor-kovsky," "Khodorkovsky" ain't it. Despite talking to the man's mother, ex-wife, adult son, former business partners and numerous others who knew him - including government officials, journalists, an ex-cellmate and his college dean - Tuschi's film leaves you with more questions than answers about its subject. A jailhouse interview at the end is maddeningly short and inconclusive. Tuschi asks Khodorkovsky whether he uses meditation to cope with his confinement but not "Did you do it?"
Is Khodorkovsky really a corrupt crook, or is he merely a political prisoner, locked away on trumped-up charges because of his opposition to former president Vladimir Putin? Did Khodorkovsky really have anything to do with the murder of a small-town mayor who stood in the way of his oil business, as some have said? Did Putin get rid of him to clear the way for the takeover of Khodorkovsky's petroleum company, Yukos, by a rival firm, Rosneft, with closer ties to the government - and looser purse strings?
Tuschi is clearly sympathetic toward his subject, but the people he talks to provide little convincing evidence, one way or the other. Tuschi isn't much of an investigative journalist, turning up no independent information that would implicate or exonerate anyone.
Until the end, Khodorkovsky appears only in archival news footage, or animated as a black-and-white cartoon character, seen swimming through a pool of gold coins at one point, or sitting in his private jet. That CGI representation of Khodorkovsky is a literal version of the unknown - and quite possibly unknowable - "phantom" that one interview subject aptly calls him.
When all is said and done, the real-life Khodorkovsky remains just as much of a cipher as his blank-faced cartoon avatar.
Contains a brief obscenity.