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13 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Reality of Spies Shown in Poisoned By Polonium

If you think being a spy is glamorous locales, sexy women and men, sleek cars and gadgets, you'll be disappointed. Sometimes reality is like that. In Andrei Nekrasov's Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko Files the real world of spies and revenge is ugly.

You might not remember the name Alexander Litvinenko, but surely you remember the story or, worse, the images. Litvinenko was a former Russian agent who died in a London hospital. If he had been shot or beaten, it would have been easy to consider it random urban violence even though shootings are rarer in the UK than in America. Yet, that was not how Litvinenko died and his death left no doubt he was poisoned.

One can't just pop over to the local hardware store and buy some like rat poison. Polonium is hard to acquire, must be handled carefully in order to avoid radioactive contamination and was administered during a lunch. Litvinenko wasn't the only person who ended up dead. So did journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006.

Litvinenko, whom Nekrasov calls Sasha, was a KBG officer and eventually worked with the KGB's successor, the FSB. Yet in 1998, he went public and accused his superiors of ordering an assassination of a Russian tycoon. He eventually fled to the UK, asking for asylum. Not satisfied with escaping with his life and his wife Marina, he wrote two books, Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within and Lubyanka Criminal Group.

Lubyanka Square is in downtown Moscow and where the headquarters of the FSB is located. As you can guess, Litvinenko made accusations in this book about the exact nature of FSB activities. He accused the FSB of staging apartment bombings and other terrorist acts that would be credited to Chechnya and help bring Vladimir Putin to power.

After his death, photos surfaced of Russian special forces using a photo of Litvinenko as a target in 2002. Nekrasov does film an interview with the man accused by the UK of Litvinenko's murder, Andrei Lugovoi. One senses that both Litvinenko and Nekrasov were driven by something to make them risk so much--all sense of security on a worldwide scale.

Directed by Nekrasov who didn't originally know Litvinenko but worked to locate him as we see in filmed footage, this documentary is more a personal rumination and a precautionary tale. One wonders if Nekrasov might not also end up dead or, if perhaps, this film will be some insurance that he will survive.

After Litvinenko's death, his widow, Marina, co-wrote a book, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB.

This documentary is intelligent and driven by an obsessive need or plea for justice. It doesn't pander to spy movie expectations or pop culture sensibilities and in that respect it is a bit dry and monotonous.

The movie might feed conspiracy theorists, but one sense Nekrasov was careful to avoid sounding an alarm of paranoia. At the very least, it will remind us that a man stood up to a regime and he died a terrible death and his name was Litvinenko.

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