Issue 54 (2016)
Nikolai Lebedev: Flight Crew (Ekipazh, 2016)
reviewed by Laura Todd© 2016
In the past 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian cinema has been plagued by an identity crisis that has dominated discussion within industry circles and has spread into the highest echelons of government. Throughout this period, a key focus in the revival of Russian national culture has been placed on cinema. On the one hand, the focus on cinema is justifiable—in spite of its restrictions on freedom, the Soviet Union did produce some of the world’s greatest, and most innovative, filmmakers. This is a legacy that any nation would be proud of. However, there is, of course, another legacy of the Soviet period that is used to justify the necessity for continued government (and societal) support of Russian film-making. The famous adage, ‘cinema is the most important of the arts’, is carted out regularly in official discussions of the role of film in Russian society, drawing historical parallels between areas of Soviet society that are acceptable to celebrate and present-day Russia. This is seen most recently in the manifesto for the project “2016—The Year of Russian Film,” perhaps one of the most ambitious commemorative ceremonies to take place in post-Soviet Russia.
The Year of Russian Film is a determined attempt to not only bolster the role of Russian cinema, but to remind Russian citizens of just how great Russian cinema was and is. The project spans a variety of areas, from the construction of new cinemas to the transformation of Moscow’s metro into a vehicle of nostalgic cinematic memory (Anon. 2016). Another key aspect is, of course, increased support for Russian film-making. When discussing Nikolai Lebedev’s 2016 film, Flight Crew, this discussion over the state of Russian film in the post-Soviet period is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, Lebedev’s film both is and is not a remake of an earlier (and hugely popular) Soviet film, also titled Ekipazh, which was directed by Aleksandr Mitta and released nationally in 1980 and internationally under the English title The Crew (also, Air Crew). And secondly, the opening credits feature the logo of the Year of Russian Film, drawing connections between this project and the appearance of the Soviet remake. Lebedev’s Flight Crew is a mixture of nostalgia and new production values (read, Hollywood-style) that have proved the most successful with Russian audiences in recent years.
The Year of Russian Film is a natural, and inevitable, successor to the previous years of discussions amongst the Russian film industry and government organizations. It epitomizes the sense that Russian film is something that needs desperately to be nurtured and appreciated, rather than dismissed as second-rate to the behemoth that is Hollywood. Interestingly, the project does not deny that there are inherent problems within Russian film production today, but rather it aims to ‘attract attention to domestic cinematography, its problems and accomplishments’ (God rossiiskogo kino, 2016). Of course, many of these problems appear to stem, according to much of the materials available on the Year of Russian Film website, from the constant comparisons between the Russian and Hollywood film industries—where Russian film is somehow expected to live up to the standards of Hollywood film production. This is led in large part from the fact that Hollywood films still remain more popular with domestic audiences than Russian productions. The issue of Russian vs. Hollywood received a heated response from Nikita Mikhalkov, who, when being questioned on whether Russian film should try to respond to Hollywood successes, snapped back in an interview with TASS: ‘Listen, why do we have to answer to someone all the time? Why don’t the Indians and Chinese have to answer to anyone? They make their own cinema and earn huge amounts of money in their own countries. Moreover, their production budgets are through the roof. And we, like clockwork, have to answer to someone all the time’ (Barinova 2016). The questioning of the path of Russia’s film industry clearly touches a sore spot, considering that some Russian films received huge amounts of money, only to fail to regain this at the box office, and considering that Mikhalkov, the veritable Don of Russian film, has a lot of political and economic interests vested in Russian film and in Flight Crew in particular—Mikhalkov is listed as one of the film’s producers and the film was produced by the director’s production studio TriTe.
Yet, at the same time, the director does have a point—the question to what extent international film industries should aim to create Hollywood-style films for their domestic audiences, rather than producing more local alternatives, is one that dominates film industries and governments from France to China. In Russia itself, arguments over the positives and negatives of the “Americanization” of cinema raged in the Soviet Union from as early on as the 1920s, feeding in to the arguments over whether film should primarily be produced for entertainment or ideology (see, for example, Youngblood 1992). Ultimately, film as ideology came out on top in the Soviet context, but this did not mean that Soviet film never pandered to the oft-perceived lower tastes of the audience, who craved genre films (comedies, romances, family dramas, adventure films and so forth) in the style of Hollywood’s finest bourgeois productions. In fact, if we look at the spread of Soviet film production across the different periods, genre films were undoubtedly the most successful productions with Soviet audiences, as opposed to dogmatic celebrations of Soviet ideology.
The fact that genre films were exceedingly popular brings us to Mitta’s film The Crew, the clear antecedent that must be discussed in any review of Lebedev’s film of the same name. Lebedev has asserted multiple times that his Flight Crew is intended to be an entirely new venture into the disaster film genre, albeit one that was inspired by Mitta’s famous Soviet production—the credits sequence of Flight Crew, for example, pays homage to Mitta’s “creativity”. Meanwhile, Lebedev notes in one interview: “Yes, the passion [for creating Flight Crew] was enormous and in a certain sense it is conditioned by Mitta’s Air Crew, which I loved as a child. That was the first Soviet disaster film. I was so impressed by it that all my life I have wanted to make something similar. I literally dreamed about making a disaster film. When I was a schoolboy I constructed a film set, made fires there, did God knows what and dreamed of shooting it all one day” (Kichin 2016). We can thus view Lebedev’s Flight Crew as a nostalgic remake, but one that clearly attempts to adhere to a contemporary narrative, rather than trying to create a strict copy of the original. There are close areas of similarity (some of which I will outline below) and cameo appearances by Mitta himself and by Aleksandra Iakovleva, who played the stewardess Tamara in the original, but there are also areas where the plot has been modernized and revitalized to suit the contemporary audience. While Lebedev was enamored with the original, he does not, and perhaps cannot—considering the vast social and political differences between the past and present Russian society—attempt to recreate Mitta’s predecessor faithfully.
The remaking of a popular film is both a dangerous and potentially profitable business. There are primarily two things that attract directors to remakes and reboots: first, if a film and its genre proved attractive to audiences before, it will likely be popular again; and second, there is a certain level of nostalgia that will automatically attract audiences across generations to see whether the new film can re-create the magic of the former. Thus, even if the film has received negative reviews, a certain proportion of the audience will be drawn to the film either through curiosity or love for the previous film. There is a great deal of nostalgia attached to the remake of Flight Crew, but, interestingly, it is not as overwhelming as the audience might expect from a remake. Rather, Lebedev has chosen the path of combining nostalgia with the new, a formula that has proved popular in other film industries, particularly Hollywood. On this point, it is essential to note that, in spite of the significance of the film being released in Russia’s Year of Russian Film, the habit of remaking to boost revenues, and potentially even public mood, is not something unique to Russia. Hollywood is currently passing through a glut of remakes, sequels, and prequels, so tightly bound that it seems that new plot lines rarely make it through the mass. Yet, these remakes, sequels and prequels have also proven outrageously popular—we only have to look at the success of a film such as Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015) to understand how the minds of audiences work. To succeed, it seems there must be open, and even humorous, references to the past film as a kind of homage, but also as an acknowledgement that this is a different film. Such a method can be seen in Lebedev’s Flight Crew; it is a beloved film from the director’s, and the nation’s, more youthful days, but this is a new day that requires new Russian films.
Before embarking on a review of Lebedev’s Flight Crew, it is essential to examine the antecedents that Mitta set in his film, in order to outline some differences between the two, and to illustrate some of the strengths and weaknesses of Lebedev’s film. Mitta’s The Crew was indeed feted as the first disaster film to be made in the Soviet Union and this genre adoption can be seen as accounting for its popularity with audiences. According to Kinopoisk.ru, it was seen by over 70 million people in the Soviet Union, which puts its success on par with other contemporary, popular Soviet genre films, such as Leonid Gaidai’s Diamond Arm (Brilliantovaia ruka, 1968), seen by 76 million, and Boris Durov’s Pirates of the Twentieth Century (Piraty XX veka, 1979), the USSR’s most popular film, with over 87 million viewers. The disaster film genre was not a new genre to the international film industry, but it was clearly experiencing a revival in popularity across the globe when Mitta’s The Crew was made in the 1970s. In particular, the popularity of George Seaton’s film Airport (1970) would have no doubt been an influence when creating a Soviet disaster film. Airport was extremely popular with audiences, but also emphasized how disaster films are closely influenced by the contemporary context in which they’re made.
Disaster films most frequently depict a hero (or more rarely a heroine) attempting to cope with a natural disaster, and related manmade disasters, saving hundreds of lives in the process. Many may die along the way, but these sacrifices must be accepted for the greater good. However, in order for this hero to be able to compete with nature, disaster films construct a back-story featuring personal turmoil, in which we can see their heroic, but intrinsically human, nature emerging. Airport features both natural and manmade disasters – in this instance, a crippling blizzard and an on-board terrorist. Interestingly, Mitta’s The Crew predominantly features a natural disaster, in the form of an earthquake and volcanic eruption that threatens a Soviet rescue mission. Manmade disasters are limited to the problems of trying to land a plane with catastrophic damage and the problems the hero-pilots face in their personal lives, rather than plots around international terrorist events. Namely, the whole first half of the film is dedicated to the disasters unfolding in the personal lives of the pilots long before their experience with nature, making Mitta’s The Crew a tale of two halves—disaster film and family drama. Within this, we can see the clear influence of Mitta’s filmmaking style, which, in the period The Crew was made, was not primarily devoted to creating entertainment films, but which was rather focused on the intricacies and difficulties of private lives. The ability to combat disaster is juxtaposed with the more human qualities of struggling to contain personal disasters.
However, Mitta’s The Crew also pays homage to the broadening of life brought about by air travel and depicts how Soviet life is broadened by overseas adventures. There is an emphasis in many of the film’s scenes on the modernity of Soviet society, seen particularly through the Soviet Union’s flagship airline, Aeroflot, on the global stage with such technical marvels as Air France’s Concorde. This is perhaps where we can see elements of dogmatism coming through most clearly—Soviet technology is on par with its Western counterparts and global citizens use the Soviet airliners. Yet, on the whole, the film’s depiction of the personal lives of the pilots clearly suggests that the experiences of Soviet families in the late 1970s and into the 1980s share universal, modern concerns with the West—divorce, adultery, depression, teenage pregnancy, irreverent young men. These were topics that would become ever more important in Soviet film as the 1980s unfolded, underlining that the film is still a Mitta production and fits more broadly into societal issues of the time. Moreover, Mitta’s The Crew is, for the most part, incredibly serious, building the pilots as heroes whose morals in disaster are tested in ways the flight simulators cannot create. It is in these flight simulators, where the pilots practice their skills for dealing with extraordinary situations, that we can also see references to contemporary international events. In particular, the pilots are tested on their ability to cope with hostage situations involving international, as well as Soviet, citizens, which no doubt references events such as the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 in Uganda in 1976. The second half of the film is dedicated to these potential disasters, although the film avoids politics by depicting a natural disaster. The pilots not only successfully rescue several Soviet citizens, but also French and Americans. The disaster scenes, while very aged to a modern viewer, are made according to the special effects available at the time, allowing Mitta to position his film amongst those of Hollywood. In all, the combination of family drama and disaster film proved to be successful, appealing to different areas of audience tastes.
So where does Lebedev’s film fit into this legacy and how should it be viewed in light of the Year of Russian Film? By standards set in Russian blockbuster film production of recent years, Lebedev’s Flight Crew competes easily with other recent Hollywood disaster films in terms of effects, plotline, and resolution. Like Stalingrad (dir. Fedor Bondarchuk, 2013), it was designed to be filmed and screened in 3D, explaining the film’s extensive use of impressive action scenes. In terms of genre film production, it is successful, establishing a balance between dramatic interludes, the construction of heroes, and action-packed images of the unfolding disasters. As a whole, the genre addresses the possibilities and dangers posed by modernity, and by the unstoppable forces of nature. The film sees not one, but two disasters, one natural (an erupting volcano) and one manmade (the cargo plane running out of fuel with escapees trapped on board). However, the inclusion of these two disasters does not weigh down the narrative, particularly if you have a taste for disaster films. Yes, there are elements of the plotline that may come across as unbelievable, but that is the nature of a genre such as the disaster film—it is intended to bring fears to life and to show how human resolve can overcome these fears. The hero saves the day, as he does in many other genre constructions.
In terms of genre and industry influences, we see both Soviet and Western traditions merging in Lebedev’s Flight Crew. There is much less emphasis on the personal history of the heroes than there is in Mitta’s film, with Lebedev giving preference to action over emotion. This is perhaps the clearest deviance from Mitta’s original. In many ways, this focus matches contemporary film genre productions closely. Modern films increasingly seek to prove their worth through heightened drama and expensive special effects—explosions, deaths, and thrills. Meanwhile, in spite of resistance to adhering to Hollywood norms, Lebedev’s Flight Crew purposefully draws from Hollywood film, albeit in subtle ways. Firstly, the love story between Aleksei Gushchin (Danila Kozlovskii) and Aleksandra Kuz’mina (Agne Grudyte) echoes the love story in Tony Scott’s 1986 film, Top Gun. In spite of differences between the two films, Gushchin himself is a character that is modeled on Top Gun’s Maverick (Tom Cruise). Gushchin is a confident, but slightly reckless, military pilot, who finds himself being forced to leave military flying because of refusal to sacrifice his morals in the face of corruption. In a nod to contemporary Russian affairs, he is disgusted to find humanitarian aid and toys destined for a children’s home placed below his military superior’s over-sized BMW wedding gifts. When he joins a civilian airline, he falls in love with Kuz’mina, a female pilot, whose icy demeanor and superiority of intelligence mirror the character of Charlie in Top Gun, rather than falling for the flirtatious air stewardess, Vika. Gushchin’s hot-headedness pushes the couple apart, only to see them reunited at the end of the film.
On the topic of Kuz’mina, we can also sense an element of modernisation in the roles of men and women in Lebedev’s film over Mitta’s. There are several scenes in the film that are crow-barred in to emphasize that contemporary Russian life is as modern as any other Western society. Kuz’mina is an independent-minded pilot, rather than an air stewardess, as the love interest, Tamara, was in Mitta’s film. This is a clear attempt to position Lebedev’s film as being more progressive and open to changes in gender roles in Russian society. Other elements of ‘progressiveness’ likewise seep through the narrative—Gushchin marvels over the modernity of Moscow’s airports, where chattering young women wearing hijabs mix comfortably with businessmen in the shiny newness of the airport’s facilities. When Gushchin is introduced to his mentor, Zinchenko (Vladimir Mashkov), he witnesses the senior pilot expelling a drunken pilot from the airline—a clear message that Russia’s pilots should no longer be infamous for their habit of flying while intoxicated. And, finally, in another scene, Gushchin becomes enraged by Zinchenko’s adherence to the rules when on an aid mission to an un-named African country, where they are tasked with retrieving international citizens. He is forced to leave the locals in the hands of militants, while foreigners are allowed to escape—perhaps this is another subtle nod to contemporary politics and Russia’s role as savior of Syria.
In further genre influences, there is a clear touch of Hollywood disaster films in the depictions of Gushchin attempting to save civilians from the unstoppable flow of lava. Rather than deserting those trapped on top of the erupting mountain, Gushchin takes a minibus up into the path of the lava flow to rescue these lost souls. Fans of late 1990s disaster films will notice similarities between the volcanic action seen in films such as Dante’s Peak (dir. Roger Donaldson, 1997) and Volcano (dir. Mick Jackson, 1997); the flow of lava is unpredictable and immoveable, providing a perfect means of testing the heroic qualities of the men who star in each of these films. Gushchin’s refusal to give up on people in the face of danger casts him as the ultimate hero, particularly in the eyes of Zinchenko’s wayward son, who, unlike his father, volunteers to face the volcano with Gushchin. Ultimately he succeeds in his task, providing him with the perfect opportunity to recreate the dangerous take-off scene from Mitta’s The Crew; Gushchin, like Mitta’s heroes in the Soviet production, performs a near-impossible take-off, proving his worth as a disaster hero. As with Mitta’s film, the task of escaping the volcanic island is not the end of the pilots’ troubles; airplanes once again provide a source of manmade disaster. As Zinchenko’s plane runs out of fuel, he must organize the transfer of the terrified escapees onto Gushchin’s plane. The result is, of course, fantastical, but to question how this task would even be possible with two planes flying at such high altitude and speed is to question the very foundations of the disaster genre. The hero ultimately triumphs over disaster. Naturally, the pilots succeed, but at the loss of several people, who fall away into the clouds, never to be seen again. In fact, this part of the film is the only place where Lebedev allows a brutal fate for the escapees, a rather uncomfortable one considering recent Russian history and its record of devastating plane crashes.
Ultimately, however, the film comes around full circle in its references to Mitta’s film. When Zinchenko, Gushchin and Kuz’mina are fired from their airline for ignoring its orders not to transfer the passengers, they find themselves welcomed into the accommodating arms of Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship airliner, the golden pinnacle for Russian pilots, and unofficial star of Mitta’s earlier film. The latter move makes you wonder how these excellent pilots did not manage to reach these lofty heights before their escape from disaster, or maybe it is their ability to fly under dangerous conditions, which makes them worthy enough to follow in the footsteps of Mitta’s Aeroflot pilots. Either way, Aeroflot becomes the home for excellent hero-pilots from across Russia.
Lebedev’s film, advances in special effects aside, is a different film from Mitta’s. In parts, there are clear references to Mitta’s film. However, Lebedev’s Flight Crew fits more comfortably into a category of recent Russian film that might be called nostalgia productions. When we consider Lebedev’s earlier successes, such as The Star (Zvezda, 2002), a WWII combat film that was almost Socialist Realist in its production values, and his more recent blockbuster, Legend No. 17 (Legenda No.17, 2013), also starring Danila Kozlovskii, the way in which Flight Crew is made is not surprising. All three films pitch a fine balance between distinctly ‘Russian’ narratives (in all these cases, selective nostalgia for the ‘good things’ about the Soviet Union), with Hollywood-style film-making. His films are polished, expensive-looking, and designed to impress on the audience that Russian film can compete with the best, but can also hold onto elements of its own history. Flight Crew’s audiences were naturally split into two—between appreciation of the remake and relief that they were able to see Mitta’s film, a masterpiece of Russian film production, before the travesty that is present day film existed. It is interesting that this perhaps mirrors the divide in audiences of remakes—that is, the divide between those alive in the 1970s and between those that were not, and who crave updated versions of films. This is neatly summarized by the impressions of Russian viewers of the film. One reviewer (Nataselin) on Kinopoisk.ru, who states they were born in the 1970s, lamented, “it seems to me that contemporary cinema is not natural enough,” suggesting that Mitta’s film with its melodramatic focus, displayed more emotional intelligence, as many of his other films did. Meanwhile, another, 22-year-old, reviewer (iriishkin) commented, ‘At last a glimmer of hope appeared in me that I would finally watch a good-quality, Russian film. There is a deficit of those here [in Russia]. It needs to be said that the film reached all of my expectations, and even exceeded them in places. After the screening, I thought to myself: “I am not embarrassed for this film!”’ (“iriishkin” 2016) Thus, Lebedev has succeeded in terms of the aims of the Year of Russian Film – he has shown there are ‘problems’ with Russian films, but that there are also ‘accomplishments’. He has also illustrated that there are two sides of the audience to please, those raised on a diet of Hollywood films, and those on a diet of Soviet.
University of Nottingham
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Anon. 2016. “Tematicheskii poezd v chest’ goda kino zapustiat na kol’tsevoi linii moskovskogo metro 24 marta,” Moskva. Agenstvo gorodskikh novostei 21 March.
Barinova, Natal’ia. 2016. “Nikita Mikhalkov: ‘Pochemu my dolzhny otvechat’ Gollivudu?’”, God kino 8 August.
Kichin, Valery. 2016. “Can a low-budget Russian disaster film look like a Hollywood blockbuster?’, Russia Beyond the Headlines, 22 July.
Youngblood, Denise. 1992. Movies for the masses: popular culture and Soviet society in the 1920s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Flight Crew, Russia, 2016.
Colour, 138 mins.
Director: Nikolai Lebedev
Screenplay: Tikhon Kornev, Nikolai Kulikov, Nikolai Lebedev.
Producers: Leonid Vereshchagin, Anton Zlataopol’skii, Nikita Mikhalkov
Cinematography: Irek Khartovich
Sound: Artem Vasil’ev
Cast: Danila Kozlovskii, Vladimir Mashkov, Agne Grudite, Sergei Kempo, Katerina Shiptsa, Sergei Shakurov, Sergei Gazarov, Elena Iakovleva, Alena Babenko, Sergei Romanovich, Aleksandra Iakovleva.
Production: Studio TriTe
Nikolai Lebedev: Flight Crew (Ekipazh, 2016)
reviewed by Laura Todd© 2016