By Alyssa Rosenberg
Most documentary filmmakers can’t pull off the things that Michael Moore does, and don’t really try—arguably, Moore’s never really pulled off a movie as raw, funny and as striking revealing as his debut, Roger & Me:
But it’s always interesting to see someone use the cocktail of things that make a Moore movie, among them skepticism of capitalism, ambush interviews, and news footage of powerful people either lying egregiously or inserting their feet deliberately and carefully into their mouths, in a decidedly non-American context, and with a different level of vehemence. Such is the case with Khodorkovsky, a new documentary about Yukos-oligarch-turned-political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky by German filmmaker Cyril Tuschi. It’s an intriguing subject for a documentary, but it also illustrates the limitations of Moore’s tactics.
The story of Khodorkovsky’s rise to vast wealth and his evolution into a democracy and anti-corruption advocate might be too subtle for the weird little touches Tuschi inserts into the movie. Because Khodorkovsky is incarcerated in a Siberian labor camp, he’s represented for most of the movie by black and white cartoons. Sometimes they work to communicate the menace of his pursuit by the Russian government, as in an opening sequence documenting his arrest. And sometimes, they show the film’s purported hero swimming in a pool full of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. That’s an odd way of stating Tuschi’s conflicted feelings about Khodorkovsky, who is, as he says in the movie, “everything my parents warned me about; a neoliberal capitalist with no interest in art.”
Those contradictions are worth teasing out: How much were Khodorkovsky’s democratic initiatives the result of public relations? When did he have his conversion moment and why? And given that Khodorkovsky isn’t a household name in the U.S., it would be worth laying out in clear, stark terms the extent to which Yukos was corrupt, the extent to which it cleaned up, and the clear case for judicial and governmental misconduct in Khodorkovsky’s conviction. It’s also not quite enough to raise government charges that he and Yukos were responsible for several murders, and then have a source tell you they’re pretty sure Khodorkovsky wasn’t responsible. Either you’ve got to make a case for his innocence, or admit the possibility that he committed murder by proxy into the movie’s overall judgement of the man.
Tuschi does both conventional and ambush interviews, but the latter aren’t very effective. Russian sources just shut him down rather than getting caught saying something damning. And of course he never gets close to Putin, though there’s funny footage of a government scheduler saying first that she’s not sure they can schedule an interview for tomorrow, then adding that she’s “not sure about the next year.” Moore’s often very good at nailing small people whose actions have large consequences, who live in their own awkward stew of contradictions. But Putin isn’t really a small person. He’s a dictatorial Stalin apologist who has made Russia remarkably less free, and may yet transform the country into a dictatorship. Showing him lying on camera isn’t really enough, because he’s not really vulnerable to shame or charges of hypocrisy.