Issue 61 (2018)

Anton Megerdichev: Going Vertical (Dvizhenie vverkh, 2017)

reviewed by Beach Gray © 2018

going verticalGoing Vertical is, as of June 2018, the highest grossing Russian domestic film since 1991 with earnings of over $53 million at the box office, supplanting the previous record holder Stalingrad (dir. F. Bondarchuk, 2013). Only Hollywood blockbusters Avatar (2009) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) have earned more in Russian theaters (Anon. 2018a). The plot is based on the victory of the Soviet men’s basketball team against the team of the United States of America at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games. The film was released widely on 28 December 2017. This review gives a short summary of Going Vertical before delving into an analysis of three interlocking aspects of the film: the overt political messaging, the production history, and the distinct visual contours.

Summary. This film follows the genre of the Hollywood sports film in its plot devices and linear time structure. These plot devices include: a new coach (played by Vladimir Mashkov), who bucks tradition with controversial sports ideas, in this case to compete against teams outside the Eastern bloc by traveling to the United States; an underdog team that is full of internal conflict at first but later coalesces; sports defeats that bring the team together, in this film losses to university basketball teams such as UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles); and a crowning victory in a championship game that ends the film, in this instance the win over the United States to claim the first Soviet Olympic title in men’s basketball. Although Going Vertical deviates from lived history at key points (that will be discussed in the next section), it is historically accurate in its depiction of the last moments of the gold medal match. The final threeseconds of the game were controversially played three times total. The first play and the replay were both deemed to be invalid for timekeeping reasons. With the Soviets one point behind, a full court pass on the final play to Aleksandr Belov resulted in a lay-up to give the Soviets the victory as time expired. The film also touches on the real-life terrorist act at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games that resulted in the loss of eleven Israeli Olympians, but it does not depict the hostage taking directly. Rather, the film references the event to show the resolve of the Soviets, who decide to continue to compete despite the tragedy. In addition to following the Soviet team as they train and become better basketball players from 1970-2, the film interweaves three personal plotlines, focusing separately on the coach Vladimir Garanzhin, the star player Aleksandr Belov, and the captain of the team, Modestas Paulauskas. Garanzhin has a disabled son Shurka who requires surgery to walk. Belov finds out he has a terminal heart condition that could keep him from playing. It leads him to break up with his girlfriend to spare her heartache. Paulauskas, a Lithuanian, doubts his loyalty to the Soviet Union and takes steps to meet family members in West Germany and defect. By the end of the film an operation for Shurka is scheduled after the players donate their cash winnings to his cause, Belov’s condition is mitigated and he reconciles with his girlfriend, and Paulauskas decides to stay in the Soviet Union.

going verticalMessaging.  There are clear political overtones to this film that suggest it is every bit about the present as it is the past. Overall, the film leans towards nostalgia for the Soviet Union. In addition to the glory of the victory in the gold medal match, the film casts the Soviet Union in a positive light and suggests that the only difficulty for the players was getting all of the goods they purchased abroad through Soviet customs. This nostalgic sentiment hints to people in the Baltic nations and the Caucasus that the correct orientation today is towards Russia rather than the West. It also suggests to a Russian domestic audience that it is natural for Russia to have a greater influence than the West in these regions. This message gets communicated through the integration of the Lithuanian and Georgian characters into the team.

In addition to evoking nostalgia, three fissure points in this state-sponsored film reveal an attitude towards the present despite the fact that the film is set in 1970-72. They concern representations of ethnic relations, victimhood, and regional loyalty. With each of these issues, the storytelling of the film deviates from the recorded history of the event.

Going Vertical resurrects a Soviet narrative that the United States is fraught with ethnic tensions while the Soviet Union is a model for ethnic harmony. The white player Doug Collins (played by Oliver Morton) on the United States’ team talks down to his African-American teammates, whereas the mix of ethnicities (Russian, Belarusian, Georgian, Lithuanian) on the Soviet team exemplifies the “friendship of nations” mantra of the Soviet Union. The film goes to lengths to show how progressive the Soviets really are. When in the United States, the team tests their skills in a back alley in Harlem, New York by accepting a challenge from a group of local African-Americans to a game of pick-up basketball. The Soviets comically bet cans of caviar against American dollars, and although they lose, they learn how to play better. In perhaps the most humorous episode in the film, the African Americans are later shown watching the gold medal game. After the Soviets win, the African Americans claim that they themselves are the best in the world since they previously won against the Olympic champion Soviets. The only problem with this clever subplot is that it most likely never happened. It was recorded in no memoirs (Somov 2018). It is a plot device to drive home a point about the difference in ethnic tolerance of the two nations in the 1970s and by extension to today’s United States and Russia.

going verticalThe technique of manipulating historical facts in support of a narrative also occurs in the depiction of victimhood. Aleksandr Belov is an established player in the team, but he finds out that he has a terminal heart condition. By the end of the film, Belov’s condition seems to have improved after he plays in the final without physical complications. Although this medical detail is based on his real life, Belov did not discover his heart condition until several years later (Somov 2018). Within the political context in which the film was released, this characterization is not arbitrary, especially since Aleksandr Belov is such a prominent character in the film. The message is that this Russian athlete is a blameless victim of circumstances beyond his control. With a release date less than two months before the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea from which several Russian athletes were banned due to an alleged state-organized doping program, the “victim” narrative promoted by the film works against the characterization of Russian athletes as cheaters.

The last element of the film in which a change of historical fact was important for the messaging of the film concerned the planned defection of Paulaustus. In the film, he is shown as a dissident, a nationalist who sings the Lithuanian anthem and does not integrate into the group collective despite the fact that he is the captain of the team. In Munich, he plans to meet with family members and defect. At the last minute, however, he decides not to defect, claiming that he cannot leave his family, his homeland, and his teammates. He rejoins the basketball team, where he plays a key role in the Soviet victory. The only problem is that there is little evidence to support the narrative that Paulaustus was a dissident with plans to defect (Sidorchik 2017). The film is invested, therefore, in depicting doubt in a Lithuanian player who ultimately chooses East over West.

Production History. The organizing principle for understanding the production history of Going Vertical is that all signs point to the film being a high priority for the Kremlin. It was funded by the state-funded Cinema Foundation of Russia and state-controlled television channel Russia-1. It was released just before the New Year holiday season, the busiest time of the year for cinema attendance in Russia. The production of the film was entrusted to Nikita Mikhalkov, who is the head of the Russian Cinematographers’ Union, a loyalist to the current Putin government, and an internationally recognized filmmaker himself. The director Anton Megerdichev has directed big budget films such as Metro (2013). He is known as a director of action and horror genre films, but it would be difficult to pin him down to a specific, immediately identifiable style. In this sense he is an ideal choice for director since he is both experienced and, it seems, malleable.

going verticalVladimir Mashkov, who plays coach Vladimir Garanzhin, leads the cast. Similar to Mikhalkov, Mashkov is an actor with an art film pedigree—he played the lead role in Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief (Vor, 1997)—who has become a Putin loyalist. Sergei Garmash, who plays Chairman of the State Committee for Sport of the USSR Sergei Pavlov, is a veteran Russian actor. Thus the older generation in the film is well known to the audience while the younger actors are not necessarily top names. American actors were also recruited for the film. The most notable is the Coach of the United States Team Henry Payne Iba, who is played by John Savage of The Deer Hunter (dir. Michael Cimino, 1978). The American actors who play the Olympians for the U.S. team have film and television credits to their names but they are not necessarily famous actors in the United States. In this way, the film showcases a high production value to the audience without disrupting the suspension of disbelief with an exclusively all-star cast.

The film was heavily marketed before its release and promoted on Russian national television channels. Its two official trailers have 2.3 million and 1.4 million views on YouTube, respectively (Anon. 2018c). The film was slated for release in theaters in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg (Anon. 2017). Going Vertical was even shown in Washington, DC when the Russian embassy organized a screening for students and invited the basketball team from Georgetown University (Anon. 2018b). Aleksandr Belov, the son of the basketball star in the film of the same name, was scheduled to answer questions after the screening. This film clearly has a stake in regional and international politics.

Overall, the film was well received among Russian critics. However, there are two criticisms of the film that cannot be overlooked. The first concerns a civil lawsuit that was filed by the two widows of the Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashin and player Aleksandr Belov, respectively, against Mikhalkov’s Three T studio before filming even began. The plaintiffs Evgeniia Kondrashina and Aleksandra Ovchinnikova claimed that the film pried into their personal lives and depicted events without their permission. The scriptwriters placated Kondrashina and the court by changing her deceased husband’s name in the film from Kondrashin to Garanzhin, but both women were not satisfied with the depictions in the film on the whole. After the release, Ovchinnikova vented her frustration and directed it at the producer. “Let the Three T studio shoot a film about [Nikita] Mikhalkov’s family, in which his family members drink, are terminally ill, dysfunctional, and sleep with whomever comes along. Let them shoot that about Mikhalkov’s family and say it is artistic fiction” (Volokhov 2018).

The second criticism occurred in a YouTube video released on 30 May 2018, in which Evgenii Bazhenov critiqued Going Vertical for copying many of the plot devices of the Hollywood film Miracle (dir. Gavin O’Connor, 2004), which is based on the improbable victory of the U.S. men’s hockey team over the Soviets in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Winter Games (Bazhenov 2018). The criticism aptly reveals the way in which the genre tropes of a Hollywood film have been co-opted for a complete reversal of messaging.

Cinematic contours. The film saves its most interesting visual features until the end. In the final (and third) play of the game, the full court pass to Aleksandr Belov is shown in slow motion and interwoven with slow motion shots of the key live audiences of the match: the Soviet Georgians who welcomed the Soviet team for a retreat, the Soviet sports bureaucrats who doubted the coach, and the African Americans who played the Soviet team in Harlem. The sequence continues with a dramatic virtual tracking shot that runs from the court to Belov’s girlfriend and revolves around her to feature the pass from her perspective. The sequence ends with the winning layup and the celebration of the Soviet team, highlighting the collective effort of the victory. This visual flourish is a reference to the visual dynamics of the most prominent Russian sports film to precede Going Vertical, Legend No. 17 (Legenda No. 17, dir. Nikolai Lebedev, 2013). It is also a nod to the present that positions Russian filmmaking as a global force with the technical mastery to manipulate CGI for a dramatic effect. The sequence visually stands out from the rest of the film. It is upstaged, however, when the credits roll and rich color footage of the original Olympic match from 1972 is played and followed by other iconic Soviet victories in Olympic sport. The footage evokes nostalgia for the glory of Soviet sports, but it also subtly suggests that things really have improved, especially in terms of Russia catching up to the rest of the world technologically. This preserved record of the past ends the film on an even higher note and points out that Soviet victories were not confined to just basketball. It suggests that the time to win new underdog victories is now as the film anticipates the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games and the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Beach Gray
Independent Scholar

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Works Cited

Anon. 2017. “‘Dvizhenie vverkh’ vyidet v prokate v Evrope i Pribaltike.” Central Partnership. 27 December.

Anon. 2018a. “Samye kassovye fil'my,” KinoPoisk, 12 June.

Anon. 2018b. “Studentam v SSHA pokazhut rossiiskii fil'm ‘Dvizhenie vverkh’.” Argumenty i fakty. 8 February.

Anon. 2018c. “Dvizhenie vverkh treiler” [search for videos]. YouTube. 15 June.

Bazhenov, Evgenii. 2018. “’Dvizhenie vverkh’: Plagiat ili velikaia pravda?” YouTube. 30 May.

Sidorchik, Andrei. 2017. “Ne ver'te glazam. 7 istoricheckikh nesootvetstvii v fil'me ‘Dvizhenie vverkh’.” Argumenty i fakty. 29 December.

Somov, Dmitrii. 2018. “Fil'm ‘Dvizhenie vverkh’. Chto pravda, a chto vymysel.” Sport-express. 6 January.

Volokhov, Iurii. 2018. “’My plachem, cherez nas prosto perestupili.’ Na ‘Dvizhenie vverkh’ podali v sud.” Sovetskii sport. 19 January.

Going Vertical [US release: Three Seconds], 2017
Color, 133 min.
Director: Anton Megerdichev
Script: Nikolai Kulikov, Andrei Kureichik
Producers: Nikita Mikhalkov, Leonid Vereshchagin, Anton Zlatopol'skii
Cinematographer: Igor' Griniakin
Cast: Vladimir Mashkov, Sergei Garmash, Oliver Morton, John Savage, Ivan Kolesnikov, Kirill Zaitsev, Marat Basharov, Nikita Iakovlev, James Tratas, Aleksandra Revenko, Irakli Mikava, Andrei Smoliakov
Production: Three T Productions
Distributor: Central Partnership
Premiere: October Cinema, Moscow, 22 December 2017.
Release: 28 December 2017

Anton Megerdichev: Going Vertical (Dvizhenie vverkh, 2017)

reviewed by Beach Gray © 2018

Updated: 2018