Film and TV

Comrade Kane

Strange as it sounds, political theorists and trained economists may get an even bigger charge out of Tycoon: A New Russian than admirers of great movies like Citizen Kane and The Godfather, which chronicle the rise and fall of ambitious men. Directed by Pavel Lounguine from a barely fictionalized novel by Russian automobile magnate Yuli Dubov, this is the tangled, intrigue-spiced tale of a smart, ruthless, yet surprisingly sympathetic Russian oligarch who takes advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to build a multibillion-dollar personal empire and seize huge chunks of political power while corrupting the finances and future of an entire nation.

Director Lounguine, who co-wrote the script of this 128-minute epic with Dubov and Alexandre Borodianski, says the character of Plato Makovski (portrayed by popular Russian matinee idol Vladimir Mashkov) is a composite of half a dozen of the Russian robber barons who threw their country into turmoil in the late 1980s and 1990s. But he also acknowledges that Makovski is based largely on Boris Berezovsky, the now-exiled car manufacturer and master power broker who is said to have wallowed in organized crime and engineered the ouster of two prime ministers while manipulating the country's key industries, banks and media outlets. Now living in London, Berezovsky was arrested by British authorities last May at the request of Russian authorities investigating him for fraud. The Russians are seeking his extradition.

The dramatic form of Lounguine's film borrows heavily from Citizen Kane, and why not? An asthmatic, boozy investigator from the Moscow district attorney's office, Chmakov (Andrei Krasko), is assigned to reconstruct Makovski's mysterious life after his assassination is reported, and from his interviews spring the flashbacks that reveal the twists and turns of an extraordinary journey. Like Berezovsky, Makovski starts out as an idealistic mathematician whose closest friends are all semi-nerdy Ph.D.s dedicated to science. But as the Soviet empire starts to crack, the budding profiteer begins cooking up schemes to trade kitchen brooms for cars, evade tariff laws and, in just a few years, hustle his way onto Forbes magazine's list of the world's hundred richest men, via vast chicanery. At one point, he blows up his new yacht with hardly a thought for the consequences, and at his lavish 44th birthday party, we see him perched atop an elephant, the ruler of all he surveys. Distracted by poverty at home and unrest in Chechnya, the Gorbachev and Yeltsin governments are too busy to pay much attention -- and everybody else is too busy drinking vodka. The rampant alcoholism Lounguine portrays here is every twelve-stepper's nightmare -- and as much a part of Russia's 1990s turbulence as gangsters cruising around in Mercedes stretch limos and black marketeers selling everything from stonewashed jeans to hookers from the Caucasus. Like Kane or Vito Corleone, Makovski is both feared and admired, and judgments of his character range from "rat charmer" to "genius."

Said simply, Tycoon has a highly ambiguous view of its subject. The movie admires him for his charm and his intelligence but clearly feels uneasy with the growing ruthlessness as the film jumps back and forth through a fifteen-year period. Actor Mashkov, with his dark, soulful eyes and his elegant mane of dark hair (he looks like a young Yves Montand), makes for a far more charismatic presence than Berezovsky himself, who is short and bald. Meanwhile, the supporting characters are striking and beautifully played. Krasko's dogged, Columbo-like detective is terrific, and Makovski's former student friends, Viktor (Sergei Oshkevich), Moussa (Alexandre Samoilenko) and Mark (Mikael Vasserbaum) all have their moments of high revelation. You may also be intrigued by a scheming general (Alexandre Baluev) still clinging to his old Marxist-Leninist faith; a trigger-happy (and thoroughly debased) ex-army colonel steeped in murder and blackmail; and a sloppy Siberian peasant, steeped in vodka and whores, who believes he can be the new Russian president. To say this last guy is thoroughly Yeltsin-like is to understate the case.

Tycoon has a few rough spots and some slow ones, and for those lacking intimate knowledge of Russian economics and politics, some of the machinations by slick businessmen, bloodstained gangsters and government officials may prove downright baffling. But director Lounguine generally moves things along crisply -- this is a crime thriller as well as a course in fiscal policy -- and Mashkov is wonderfully nuanced.

This revealing look at ambition and power in the post-Soviet age is also peppered with lovely ironies -- about the parallel corruptions inherent in communism and capitalism, and the tug of greed common to both. But the most exquisite irony of all probably lies in the rumor (as yet unrefuted) that Boris Berezovsky himself financed the $6 million production costs of Tycoon so that he would have a lasting monument to himself. The things a clever egoist can do with money may be almost limitless.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo