Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky follows the multiple trials and tribulations of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia’s richest man before he pissed off Putin by challenging him in public and, subsequently and unsurprisingly, found himself shuttled off to a prison in the middle of nowhere on trumped up charges. Tuschi casts his net wide, seguing from news footage of international leaders’ reactions (including Putin’s) to Khodorkovsky’s arrest, to animation reenacting his being taken into custody on his private jet, to scenic footage from the filmmaker’s own travels to find the story. But since none of the bigwigs involved want to talk to the German director, Tuschi ends up only interviewing the notorious oligarch’s family members, Komsomol colleagues from Khodorkovsky’s youth, early business partners—even his former dean! In other words, too many talking heads of little substance fill the screen, providing about as much insider information as one of Bernie Madoff’s grade school chums.
Even more problematic is the director’s naïveté when it comes to post-USSR politics. Tuschi may be shocked to encounter a KGB agent who sympathizes with Khodorkovsky, but anyone who knows even the barest about Kremlin alliances will view it as business as usual. Indeed, it’s the West that’s taken up Khodorkovsky’s cause and put his name on the Amnesty International map. Joe Nocera of the New York Times is quoted in the press notes as writing, “…Khodorkovsky’s fate stands as a powerful illustration of Russia’s biggest problem: the contempt the country’s corrupt rulers have for the rule of law,” by which, one assumes, he means our rule of law. (Alexander Gentelev’s endlessly fascinating Thieves By Law should be required viewing for anyone looking to understand the actual Russian legal mindset.) By the standards of many young (Putin-supporting) Russians, Khodorkovsky’s very much a crook. In fact, this is the more interesting angle—the East/West difference in perception rather than the life story of a rather staid businessman—that Tuschi discovers yet dismissively turns away from.
Additionally, the director glosses over rather than digs deep into such interesting aspects as the varied opinions of the men under Khodorkovsky who’ve had to flee the country because of him. Instead, Tuschi barrels on—and on—in an effort to finally reach his goal of interviewing his main protagonist, a ghostly presence who’s only seen in news reports, rendered in animation, and heard via a letter Khodorkovsky sent in response to the filmmaker’s questions. By the time the director delves into the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the doc’s gone off the subject and off the rails. Ultimately and unfortunately, Khodorkovsky winds up revealing more about the Western way of seeing than it does about a politically imprisoned oligarch.