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Movie Reviews: Gagarin

By Chris Oakley




From the San Francisco Chronicle, May 6th, 2001:



Without a doubt, the sudden death of Soviet air force major Yuri Gagarin in the Vostok 1 spacecraft tragedy forty years ago was one of the terrible calamities in the history of human exploration. What began as a moment of triumph for the Soviet Union when it attempted to put the first man in space turned into a moment of horror when Gagarin’s capsule exploded just eight minutes after liftoff; that explosion, later deemed by Soviet engineers inspecting the wreckage of the capsule to have been the result of a defective fuel line, has haunted would-be space travelers ever since and is widely judged by historians to have hastened the fall of Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev. Some even blame the Vostok disaster for delaying serious attempts at manned spaceflight by the United States until 1966.

Now director Wolfgang Petersen attempts to capture the life of the ill-fated Soviet test pilot in his new 100-minute biographical drama Gagarin, based on the Gerald Posner book Broken Wings: The Life and Death of Major Yuri A. Gagarin. This is the first serious effort by a non-Russian filmmaker at putting Major Gagarin’s life on the silver screen, and though it does have its share of faults it compares quite favorably with Elem Klimov’s classic 1985 biopic Tovarich Yuri Gagarin for the most part. In some respects it may actually even be superior to the Klimov movie, since it isn’t burdened by the same ideological constraints that hampered Tovarich.

One of the movie’s few flaws is that it tries to cover too much in too short a timespan. Thus the post-explosion inquiry into Gagarin’s death and the backroom Kremlin maneuvering which resulted in Khrushchev’s ouster are unfortunately given short shrift, as is Gagarin’s early childhood in a Russia torn by the 1941 Nazi invasion. There’s also a problem with the film’s musical score, which at times seems more appropriate for a romantic comedy than for a serious account of the man Arthur C. Clarke once called "the Space Age’s first martyr". And there are also blemishes in the movie’s special effects, particularly with the sequence depicting the Vostok capsule’s remains falling back to earth after the capsule blows up.

But for the most part Gagarin does an admirable job of telling the ill-fated Russian cosmonaut’s story. Gary Oldman portrays the title role with a humanity that makes viewer grieve anew for the promising life that was disastrously cut short by the Vostok 1 explosion; kudos are also in order for Bob Hoskins, who hidden under the most intricate age makeup seen on a movie performer in ages does a better Nikita Khrushchev than Khrushchev himself. Let’s also give credit where it’s due to Ed Harris for his short but meaningful cameo late in the film as John Glenn; Harris’ monologue about Gagarin neatly and eloquently sums up the depths of the loss Russia (and the world) sustained when the cosmonaut was killed.

The granite statue to Major Gagarin in Moscow’s Red Square figures prominently in the movie’s opening and closing credits; Gagarin’s parting frame, in fact, shows a closeup of the statue’s face as twilight is descending on the Russian capital. It is a shot certain to linger in moviegoers’ minds long after they’ve left the theater-- and the same could be said of Petersen’s film as a whole.


The End


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