Issue 43 (2014)

Pavel Parkhomenko: Gagarin. The First Man in Space
(Gagarin, Pervyi chelovek v kosmose, 2013)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2014

gagarinThe last ten years of Russian cinema and TV have seen a spate of biographical films and serials glamorizing and glorifying the lives of various iconic figures in Russian history. Not only statesmen (Brezhnev, Stolypin) and military commanders (Kolchak, Zhukov), but poets (Pushkin, Esenin) and even sportsmen (ice hockey star Valerii Kharlamov) have been a source of inspiration to historically promiscuous film makers eager to promote a one-dimensional picture of Russia’s glorious past, be it Soviet or pre-revolutionary. In some cases, human interest clearly outweighs history as the TV series on Elena Furtseva (Minister of Culture under Khrushchev and Brezhnev) and Galina Brezhneva (Brezhnev’s infamous daughter) illustrate, but on the whole, Putin-era cinema has shown a fascination with “great Russians” and Russian pioneers that almost seems reminiscent of a similar obsession during the late 1930s and 1940s. That the first man in space would have a biopic made about his life comes as no surprise therefore, especially given his status as the nation’s undisputed darling. What is surprising is that it was not made much earlier.

gagarinIurii Gagarin has not been completely absent in Soviet and Russian cinema, of course. The 1976 youth film Thus Began the Legend (Tak nachinalas’ legenda) concentrated on his childhood, specifically the war years, which he and his family spent under German occupation, highlighting the growth of Gagarin’s steadfast character, rather than the space flight for which he is remembered. More recently, Gagarin has had fleeting appearances in Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchuvstvie, Aleksei Uchitel’, 2005) and Paper Soldier (Bumazhnyi soldat, Aleksei German Jr., 2008), films that, although set in 1961, use Gagarin’s success story primarily as a foil for a fictional drama. The latter film especially does much to deconstruct the myth of Soviet space success by painting the Baikonur cosmodrome in the bleakest possible colors and showing a fatal experiment in which one of Gagarin’s fellow cosmonauts loses his life.

gagarinGagarin. The First Man in Space clearly pursues a different goal—to preserve the cherished image of Gagarin as national hero and to remind viewers that the space program’s most tangible success united the nation more than any other event in Soviet (or post-Soviet) history. Though few people would disagree with such an assessment, the makers take great pains to deliver this message, especially toward the end of the film when we are shown the nationwide reaction to Gagarin’s heroic feat, ranging from relief and subdued pride (his parents) to more straightforward enthusiasm among the locals of Gagarin’s native village, and finally, total elation in the streets of Moscow. These re-enacted images of national rapture are interspersed with documentary footage of Gagarin being cheered in Red Square, as if to convince the viewer that this “too-good-to-be-true” story actually happened. Although the film ends with a caption noting that Gagarin’s last years were marred by the monstrous pressure of “circumstances” and a feeling of self-estrangement, the narrative proper stops with Gagarin’s triumphant return to Moscow, thus leaving intact the canonical image of the ever-smiling cosmonaut.

The step-motherly treatment of Gagarin’s life as an international celebrity, that is, after his space flight, was to be expected, given the makers’ patently patriotic agenda, but it also testifies to their unwillingness, or inability, to invest the film with a minimal amount of suspense and drama. The rivalry between Gagarin and German Titov, the second man in space, is hinted at, but never fully developed, serving only to enhance Gagarin’s comradeliness and selfless commitment to the cause. For example, when Gagarin innocently jokes that they could write a novel together under the pseudonym “Iurii German,” Titov fails to see the humor of it (the order of their names reminding him that he is only the second in line, after Gagarin). Here, the makers could have portrayed Gagarin as being at least susceptible to Titov’s envy in order to create a conflict, but they choose to emphasize the first cosmonaut’s loyalty and self-effacement – Gagarin genuinely does not understand why his colleague reacts in such a hostile manner.

gagarinThat Gagarin’s flight, particularly his reentry into the atmosphere, did not go as smoothly as Soviet authorities presented it to the world is duly acknowledged by the makers. The initial failure to separate the reentry capsule from the instrument module, which caused the spacecraft to tumble and spin, is shown in great detail, and yet we never get the idea that Gagarin is in any serious danger. Since we have just witnessed the successful ignition of the braking engine (the functioning of which was discussed anxiously by mission control just a moment before), we are prepared to accept that Gagarin’s bumpy ride home is part of the plan. After all, it is man’s first flight in space! Further reducing the suspense is the fact that “the people” are shown celebrating Gagarin’s triumph while he is still struggling for his life. Although this is historically accurate (Moscow radio made the announcement about the flight just an hour after the launch), at this point we feel like identifying with the celebrating crowd in Red Square, rather than with Gagarin.

What message does Gagarin have to convey other than that of national pride? Apart from being a film about the first man in space, Gagarin is also a film about responsible fathers and father figures, male characters of authority who live up to their moral duties. First, there is Gagarin’s own father who disapproves of his son’s choice to leave the village, but whose modesty and exemplary work attitude are shown to be the key factors that contribute to Iurii’s own success. Gagarin is a father himself and a responsible one at that; we see him rejoicing at the news that his wife is pregnant and he proves to be more than willing to change the baby’s diapers. The most important father figure in the film, however, is Sergei Korolev, the driving force and supervisor of the Soviet space program, who explicitly refers to Gagarin as his “son.” Although Korolev’s leading questions about “faith” in a private conversation make Gagarin express his faith in the space project, rather than in religion, Christianity looms large in the whole film suggesting that Gagarin could not have succeeded without the support of the vaguely religious Korolev and his overtly Orthodox parents. At this point, Korolev’s personal story and his wavering loyalty to the state could also have been used as sources of conflict (he was arrested in 1938 and spent some time in Siberia before being forced to work at a secret research laboratory), but again the makers shied away from exploring this potentially disruptive option. In the film, Korolev is a man without a past, his advanced age notwithstanding.

gagarinWith a budget of only $9.5 million, Gagarin seems a little underfinanced. The scenes “in space” look rather convincing, but the celebrations in Red Square and in front of Moscow State University certainly do not, the number of extras being simply too small. Equally facile and cheap is the portrayal of national leader Nikitia Khrushchev as a dim-witted potentate who takes a few piles of plates for a scale model of some prestigious project such as Akademgorodok or the Artek youth camp. Khrushchev’s almost menacing words that he wants “Gagarin alive” (that is, safely back on earth) may be intended to hint at the media circus that would eventually drive Gagarin to exhaustion, but it also sets up too simple a contrast between those who “really” care about Gagarin’s well-being (Korolev, his parents) and those who seek to take advantage of it (Khrushchev). Contrasts such as these add to the overall impression of a historically fairly accurate, but ultimately tame and disappointing film.

Otto Boele
University of Leiden

Comment on this article on Facebook

Gagarin. Pervyj chelovek v kosmose, Russia, 2013
Color, 108 minutes
Director: Pavel Parkhomenko
Screenplay: Oleg Kapanets, Andrei Dmitriev
Cinematography: Anton Antonov
Music: George Kallis
Cast: Iaroslav Zhalnin, Mikhail Filippov, Vadim Michman, Anatolii Otradnov, Daniil Vorob’ëv, Sergei Kalashnikov, Sergei Laktiun’kin, Vladimir Steklov, Inga Oboldina, Vladimir Chuprikov, Ol’ga Ivanova, Nadezhda Markina.
Production: Kinokompaniia “Kremlin Films”

Pavel Parkhomenko: Gagarin. The First Man in Space
(Gagarin, Pervyi chelovek v kosmose, 2013)

reviewed by Otto Boele © 2014

Updated: 05 Jan 14