Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Gagarin: First in Space (orig. Гагарин. Первый в космосе) 
KinoNews.ru listing* KinoPoisk.ru listing*
Kino-teatr.ru listing* Kritikanstvo.ru listing*
ArgumentyiFakty.ru (A. Rogova) review*
ArgumentyiFakty.ru (A. Sidorchik) review*
KinoNews.ru (R. Volohov) review*
KinoTeatr.ru (P. Konyashov) review*
ProfiCinema.ru (M. Vasilyeva) review*
RusKino.ru (S. Stepnova) review*
VarietyRussia.com (S.F. Rostockiy) review*
Kino.kz viewer reviews*
Gagarin: First in Space (orig. Гагарин. Первый в космосе)  [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KP.ru]*[KT.ru]*(directed by Pavel Parkhomenko [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KP.ru]*[KT.ru]* screenplay by Andrey Dmitriev [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KP.ru]*[KT.ru]* and Oleg Kapanets [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KP.ru]*[KT.ru]*) is another 2013 Russian "patriotic" film that I came across as I was reviewing the Russian "biopic" / "Rocky-like" hockey movie Legend no. 17 (orig. Легенда №17)  the latter having played at the 2013 Russian Film Week in New York. I immediately thought to look the current film up and then to also review it here.
Why do so? I do honestly ask myself this question. After all, it seems that with each passing day the situation in Ukraine gets worse [BBC] [CNN] [FoxNews]. Why should an American of Czech parents (In 1968 the Soviet Union / Warsaw Pact invaded then Communist but reforming Czechoslovakia on my mother's birthday when I was 4 ...) even bother to review a film that like Legend no. 17 (orig. Легенда №17)  and the "3D extravaganza" Stalingrad (orig. Сталинград)  [KN.ru]*[KP.ru]*[KT.ru]* (I saw that film about a year ago and never bothered to review it) ALL FEEL to someone like me to be "neo-Soviet" / propagandistic in intent?
Well honestly, I've viewed and reviewed these films for the sake of better understanding among people. For while an American (or for that matter a Czech) may not like that the Russian, Yuri Gagarin [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*, was the first man in space (and to this day there various western conspiracy theories that he was not ... theories that if one investigates, and believe me I have..., while AT TIMES _tantalizing_, ultimately DON'T add up [en.wikip] [EA]) or that due to a combination of the peculiarities of the Soviet system and the esoterics of Olympic Games' rules at the time, the Soviet Union had a hockey team perhaps like no other, both before or since, the reality is that these were RUSSIAN, Soviet Era ACHIEVEMENTS of which if I were a Moscovite, of ANY STRIPE, I'd probably be proud.
FURTHER, the RUSSIAN DISCUSSION around this film (and others) is IMHO both fascinating and AFFIRMING that Russians are, in fact, JUST LIKE US.
First the nationalistic nature of this film was noted by pretty much everyone of the RUSSIAN REVIEWERS that I cite above. Almost EVERYONE of the reviewers asked the question if it's "okay" for a film to be SO NATIONALISTIC. Most answered, ultimately, "Sure, why not? We're Russians. Why not be proud of being Russians?" Yet, the discussion was remarkably similar to that in the United States regarding American Sniper  with a fair number of American critics being uncomfortable with a film that was so unabashedly patriotic. Indeed, one of the Russian critics listed above suggested HER FAVORITE recent Russian film about the Soviet Era space program, the far more somber / introspective Paper Soldier (orig. Бумажный солдат)  [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KP.ru]*[KT.ru]* which I've since looked-up / seen and I'd call "The Hurt Locker " of recent Russian movies about the Soviet era space program ;-).
Then there was A FASCINATING DISCUSSION on KinoNews.ru* which noted that despite Gagarin's  [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KP.ru]*[KT.ru]* outstanding technical quality -- I'd certainly characterize _its technical quality_ as easily on par with the American classic The Right Stuff  about the origins of the space program in the United States -- and despite being the top-drawing RUSSIAN MADE FILM in Russia during the summer of its release (2013), IT RANKED #27 (!) in the RUSSIAN BOX OFFICE during the same summer period. It was beaten (CLOBBERED really) by 26 OTHER FILMS, mostly American made Hollywood films including Despicable Me 2 , World War Z  and The Wolverine . The question was, why? A fair number of readers blamed "marketing" but A LOT OF THE READERS' COMMENTS SUGGESTED THAT THE HOLLYWOOD FILMS SIMPLY REMAINED "MORE COMPELLING."
And there it is. From a technical point of view the current film about Gagarin's [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* space flight (and via flashbacks about his early life) is outstanding. And IT WOULD BE WORTH IT FOR AMERICANS / WESTERNERS TO SEE. However as opposed to the American/Hollywood made The Right Stuff , the Russian made Gagarin  [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KP.ru]*[KT.ru]* REMAINS "a hagiography." And that is a shame because IMHO a _far more_ interesting / relatable "Right Stuff-like" portrayal of Gagarin's life can be found in Jamie Doran's [wikip] [GR] [Amzn] and Piers Bizony's [wikip] [GR] [Amzn] recent book Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin (2011) [Amzn] [GR] [WCat].
Those who would read Doran / Bizony's Starman (2011) would certainly see why Gagarin [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* was such a compelling Russian Soviet-Era hero. Among other things, he was the quintessential SMILING RUSSIAN HERO that I set-out to look-for when, FRUSTRATED AND ON MY OWN, I decided to look-up the films shown at the 2013 New York Russian Film Week (I wrote then that IMHO it was CRUCIALLY IMPORTANT, indeed, continued (relative) World Peace could well depend on it, for Westerners to see _smiling Russians_ rather than ONLY "the dour ones" portrayed in the _very few_ Russian films that make it to our western movie theaters). But readers of Doran/Bizony's book would also encounter a very human, Russian Soviet-Era hero:
(1) Part of the reason why he never made it to space again was because he had a _very human accident_, born of several levels of stupidity ;-). Five or six months after his famous space flight, on vacation in Crimea, he broke his leg jumping out of a 2nd story hotel window to avoid his wife catching him with another woman :-) (Doran and Bizony, Starman, Chpt 9, "The Foros Incident," pg 155ff of 234, dutifully recorded in then head of Cosmonaut Training General Nikolai P. Kamanin's [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* Published Diary "Скрытый космос" (1995) Entry for Oct 4, 1961* [WCat] [GR]) -- A SITUATION THAT MANY OF AMERICA'S "MERCURY SEVEN" ASTRONAUTS could CERTAINLY HAVE RELATED TO ;-) ;-).
And (2) precisely because of his popularity -- Gagarin was very much Khrushchev's [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* (also known for his smile) "golden boy" -- the aparachiks of the succeeding (largely smile-less) Brezhnev Era [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* HATED HIM, to the point that, while (again) Doran / Bizony's book ultimately does not question the fundamental narrative that Gagarin died in a plane crash, apparently even GAGARIN'S OWN MOTHER ASKED ONE OF HIS FELLOW COSMONAUTS: "Was Yura killed?" (Doran and Bizony, Starman, Epilogue, pg 233 of 234)
Instead, the current film whitewashes anything that could put color on his story, and even adjusts it to current ideological times: One of my very-much-believing 82-year-old Czech born / through-Berlin-before-the-Wall-escaping dad's persistent complaints about Gagarin [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* has always been that Gagarin, a Communist after all, was _a very public_ and _enthusiastic_ proponent of atheism. Asked the question if he believed in God, Gagarin (in)famously responded then: "Well, when I was there, orbiting the earth, I saw no god floating beside me ..."
But times have changed. Faced with his (then) quite outspoken atheistic record, the current film-makers did their best to "fix things" to more Russian Orthodox Church friendly times. SO while Gagarin [IMDb] (played in the film by all accounts admirably Yaroslav Zhalnin [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KT.ru]*) himself remained "a skeptic", (1) HIS WIFE Valya (played in the film by Olga Ivanova [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KT.ru]*), (2) HIS MOTHER (played in the film by Nadezhda Markina [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KT.ru]*) and (3) EVEN THE FATHER-OF-THE-SOVIET-SPACE-PROGRAM S.P. Korolev [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* (played in the film by Mikhail Filippov [IMDb] [KN.ru]*[KT.ru]*) were ALL portrayed as believers.
And even Gagarin himself is portrayed in this film as a "softer" non-believer (and with a context / story): (1) He tells his wife that it's okay if she prays for him "if it would make her feel better...", and (2) IN A TRULY INTERESTING SCENE ACTUALLY, when as a child (he and his family lived under Nazi occupation in a small village in the Smolensk [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* region) he asked his mother about "the beauty of the stars at night" and film has her respond: "They are God's tears," to which HE responds: "So are you telling me that God did not march with the Germans?" (Note here that the Germans during the Nazi era infamously rampaged across Europe wearing belt-buckles with the curt message: "Gott mit Uns" meaning "God's with us...").
In any case, a new Putin-esque ideology which seeks to co-opt the Russian Orthodox Church to its side, apparently requires a "re-imagined" Gagarin with regards to matters of faith... (Indeed, Putin may be seeking to deal with the Russian Orthodox Church in a similar way as Franco sought to coopt / keep-in-line the Catholic Church during his reign in Spain...).
So what then to say ultimately about this movie? I would honestly encourage Americans / Westerners to find it and see it. The Soviets were in space first. That is simply a fact. They also had and have their heroes AND HAVE REASON TO BE PROUD OF THEM.
Still, the Russians do have a lot to learn also from the West. Among them here, honestly, if Gagarin [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* had been portrayed more humanly in this film, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN A BETTER MOVIE and ALSO ALMOST CERTAINLY A MORE SUCCESSFUL ONE. That DESPITE ITS TECHNICAL QUALITY the film still came in at 27th (!) IN ITS OWN COUNTRY is perhaps the single best indication that IDEOLOGICAL RIGIDITY makes for disappointing cinema. And even Russia's far-and-away most famous film-maker, the STALIN ERA Sergei Eisenstein [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* famously agreed with that assessment.
Jamie Doran's [wikip] [GR] [Amzn] and Piers Bizony's [wikip] [GR] [Amzn] book Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin (2011) [Amzn] [GR] [WCat].
General Nikolai P. Kamanin [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]*, head of Cosmonaut Training 1960-1971, Published diary "Скрытый космос" ("Hidden Cosmos") (1995) [WCat] [GR] (downloadable in Russian here,* and after downloading can be run, chapter by chapter / month by month, through translate.google.com)
Boris Chertok [en.wikip] [ru.wikip]* memoir Ракеты и люди (Rockets and People) (published 1994-1999) translated into English by Asif Siddiqi [en.wikip] and is available in English translation online for free via NASA's website. The memoir gives a history of the Soviet Rocketry program from its beginnings in the 1930s through the 1970s.
Mark Wade, editor, Encyclopedia Astronautica [en.wikip]
* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser.
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