Costing $9 million to make and breaking box office records on its release in Russia, this is the first big-budget treatment given to the subject of the Soviet’s 10 year war in Afghanistan. It is directed by debutant Fyodor Bondarchuk, son of celebrated Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk.
The film follows the partly true tale of the last members of the Russian army’s 9th Company as they make their way from their training camp in Uzbekistan to the Afghan highlands in the late 1980s. Until their disbandment in 1989, the 9th Company were one of the most specialized and prepared units in the Russian Army and thus, as military justice goes, were sent to the most crucial and dangerous locations during Soviet Russia’s various military conflicts.
In the US-centric film business – not to mention the US-centric political business – the USSR’s disastrous Afghan military campaign of the 1980s is often described as ‘Russia’s Vietnam’, and it is safe to say that this film owes a lot to certain politically-cynical Hollywood movies on that conflict. Indeed, predictions that this film may land Bondarchuk a trip to Hollywood may well prove true: his tendency to attempt to cram far too much storyline and sentiment into each sequence may just prove too much for some West coast production company to resist.
Right from the orchestral-led, emotionally-loaded first scene the director is not shy about letting us know that he intends this to be epic with emotional and psychological intensity. Unfortunately, what follows contains few surprises, both in terms of plot or character development. In the training camp, the initial infighting and dissent takes it predictable course towards unity and brotherly love, as the artist Petrovski (Kryukov) and the brutish (but eventually golden hearted) Lytaev (Smollylnainov) – both rather familiar and underdeveloped characters – eventually reconcile their differences.
The film’s most common blunder is that the supposedly emotionally significant scenes tend to arrive far before the audience’s involvement in the characters is won, which left me feeling somewhat disconnected. To be fair, when the story moves to Afghanistan, the action becomes much more absorbing, and some of the shots of the Afghan highlands are truly spectacular.
Once the battles start however, we learn of the filmmakers’ unhealthy obsession with filters; each explosion containing unreal collection of luminous yellows and reds. On top of this, the strangely inconsistent pace of the editing gives the film an unusual, and occasionally comic, feel. Despite my continued attempt to take the film seriously, there were points when I found myself struggling to hold back a giggle – a ludicrously brief shot of a weeping officer Dygalo (Porechenkov) sitting in a field of luminous red poppies certainly raised a chuckle. Although some of the acting was competent, during the most contrived moments of dialogue the sympathy I felt for the characters’ situation was mixed with sympathy for the actors’ misfortune at having been cast in the film.
Considering that this is Fyodor Bondarchuk’s first film, it is not all doom and gloom, and there is perhaps enough to suggest that he may one day win the international plaudits that his father became used to. As for this outing, I can only assume that it’s the big budget and the Hollywood-style concept which has propelled it towards international release.