Real vs. Celluloid Oligarch
Tycoon is my first foray into the post-Soviet Russian crime genre, and it proved to be disappointing. Of course, at Russia Blog, we don't like to describe the post-Soviet oligarchs as "tycoons" in the mold of Rockefeller or Carnegie, because unlike these historic capitalist figures, the oligarchs did not create new wealth, they only acquired existing state-run industries for themselves.
What may interest students of recent Russian history more than the movie is the English-subtitled DVD's extended interview with Tycoon's Franco-Russian director, Pavel Lungin. In this exchange, recorded in French (with English subtitles), Lungin describes how the obsession with money has hit post-Soviet Russia like "an A-bomb - with invisible rays" and that this condition has destroyed "what was the real strength of Russia...the special friendships that held an important place in our lives...now those friendships are dissolving like cubes of ice in a glass." Western critics looking for a Scorsese-inspired psychological picture instead saw a film about a close knit fraternity's rise to wealth and power with some themes borrowed from gangster and detective movies.
Makovski and "brothers" enjoy the fireworks
Pavel Lungin also describes meeting the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whom the protagonist Platon Makovski is loosely based on, "Makovski is and isn't Berezovsky...for one thing, although he was a womanizer, Berezovsky was not attractive to women, he had to work harder at it...to be charming." Lungin says that Berezovsky has "a devilish look about him (see the above cover)...he was the favorite target of the anti-Semites...here was the devil of ruthless capitalism personified." Lungin added that Berezovsky "is not a violent man." The late Paul Klebnikov's book Godfather of the Kremlin differs on this account, providing strong evidence that Berezovsky had literally dozens of people killed during his rise to power. Berezovsky became the godfather of "the Family", a clique of Kremlin insiders who manipulated President Yeltsin's favorite daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, to dispense state contracts and punish their rivals.
Lungin describes the oligarch of his creation, Platon Makovski, as "a romantic hero...who slowly loses his friends and his soul, by betraying and being betrayed." In real life, Berezovsky was less charming than Lungin, who still travels between Paris and Moscow regularly, describes him. As for the plot, there are too many similarities to Berezovsky's life to list here, but the most important parallel between fantasy and reality is Makovski's early career as a brilliant mathematician in the perestroika years (1985-1989).
One day in 1985 Makovski joins some childhood and university friends on a train ride to an important academic conference. On the train he meets Masha (Maria Miranova, who plays Yegor's mother in Night Watch), the beautiful young wife of Koretsky (Aleksandr Baluyev), an older Communist Party official. Masha becomes Platon's lover and then leaves him and her husband for several years. Not surprisingly, Koretsky becomes Platon's nemesis.
Makovski and his friends, in spite of their advanced degrees, soon find themselves struggling through the perestroika years, so they ghost write thesis for rich kids at $1,000 a pop. Makovski sells Western designer knock off stone washed jeans and befriends "Larry", a Georgian who manages a car factory in the Volga region. With a stroke Makovski and his friends become the owners of the plant and also find a Uzbek mob "fixer" to settle their turf dispute with a gang of Georgian thugs. Suprisingly for Western audiences weaned on the violence of Goodfellas, Makovski and his immediate associates never have to get their hands dirty, in contrast to real life oligarchs who killed their rivals. The killing only comes later, when Platon's success attracts a gang of racketeers who hold a special customs exemption from the Kremlin, trading as a "non-profit" for crippled Afghan war veterans. Platon decides to fight back against a corrupt government shaking him down by purchasing a news media channel and buying a Siberian governor as "his" presidential candidate. Unfortunately, by this point Platon's arrogance and the pressure exerted by his enemies in the Kremlin turn the governor into one of his fiercest foes.
Makovski and Nina
Americans who enjoyed The Aviator may compare Makovski to Scorsese's version of Howard Hughes. One of Platon's business partners describes the rapacious Kremlin to a detective, "it's like a Hindu goddess with dozens of arms...". Just as a corrupt Senator in The Aviator tried to destroy TWA, most audiences will sympathize with Makovski's showdown with the biggest crooks and criminals of all, those who were running the Kremlin during the Yeltsin years.
Without giving away the ending, the climax is not really much of a shocker and resolves almost nothing. The director Lungin spoke of creating "history...when people look back fifteen years from now the movies will be the story they will remember...", but for understanding the rise of the oligarchs, ordinary people will likely turn to Brigada and other Russian TV shows and films before they watch Tycoon. Lungin's "romantic hero" oligarch is too sympathetic to ring true, more like Jay Gatsby than Boris Berezovsky.