Issue 42 (2013)

Nikolai Lebedev: Legend No. 17 (Legenda No. 17, 2012)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2013

Legend No. 17, a biopic about the famous Soviet hockey player Valerii Kharlamov, directed by Nikolai Lebedev, is one of the most prominent films released in Russia in 2013. Its April premiere was accompanied by an aggressive marketing campaign, especially on Channel Rossiia 1, the film’s co-producer. Even Russian Wikipedia jumped on the bandwagon by putting out a verbose and fawning entry. President Putin praised the film by saying it would be appreciated both by sports enthusiasts and by those who are proud of Russian history. However, a Russian blogger was closer to the truth when he said exactly the opposite: the film will be liked best by those who don’t know much about sport and know absolutely nothing about the Soviet Union. As someone who belongs firmly in the first demographic, but certainly not in the second, I rather liked the dynamic sporting scenes but frowned upon the vision of the USSR as a theme park for the new generation. Oh, spot that car! Tick. Spot the aging Brezhnev! Tick. Spot the drunken men taken away by the police—three times. Tick. The tour is over, you can go home now.

legenda17The Putinist attitude toward the Soviet Union is highly ambivalent—it tries to wed communist nostalgia for the glorious imperial past with a nominally anti-communist rhetoric. The results can be confusing. Putin admirer Nikita Mikhalkov, whose company produced the film and whose shadow hovers over it, should know it best: his Burnt by the Sun sequels satisfied neither die-hard Stalinists nor liberals and flopped miserably, even if they were fun to watch. This time, as “the general producer,” he just might get his money back; yet comments like “the film is a total lie, made to please no one in particular” are not a rarity either. The success consisted in luring 4 million people into the theaters, even though many of them may have had second thoughts later. But let us look at the story (spoiler alert!)

The prologue. Spain, 1956. Over the rolling hills of the Basque country, a multitude of pesky and crudely drawn digital birds suggest that we are in for something epic. In the following scene that has collected all the “Spanish” stereotypes imaginable—corrida and flamenco galore—an 8-year-old boy saves a puppy from a herd of raging bulls let loose to entertain the public as per local tradition. The boy is Valera Kharlamov, the son of a Basque mother and a Russian father, who spends some time in Bilbao before returning to the Soviet Union. He is told by his uncle that he can achieve anything, as long as he really wants it—the maxim that will later be repeated by his girlfriend and by his coach.

legenda17Moscow, 1967. The 19-year-old Valerii (Danila Kozlovskii) plays in the junior league where his talents attract the attention of the great and horrible CSKA coach Anatolii Tarasov (Oleg Menshikov), “the toughest man in the USSR after Marshal Zhukov.” Valerii is flattered but Tarasov is in no hurry to accept him into the team. Instead, he sends him and his friend “Goose” Guskov (Aleksandr Lobanov) to Chebyrkul, a dreary industrial town in the Urals, to get experience and prove their mettle. The local team, “Zvezda,” unbeknownst to its coach (Roman Madianov), is ruled by two thugs who throw games in order to keep things slow and easy. Valerii challenges them and wins the support of the team.

Welcome back to the computer-generated Moscow circa 1968. Tarasov continues to challenge Kharlamov by keeping him away from the training sessions as long as he can, and then by subjecting him to all kinds of endurance tests. Initially resentful, Kharlamov almost falls prey to the powerful, slithering party bureaucrat Balashov (Vladimir Menshov) who wants him to sign a denunciation of Tarasov in exchange for better treatment. Kharlamov does accept a new apartment, a new Volga car—the height of Soviet chic in 1971—and other rewards, but refuses to rat on his coach. His singleminded passion for hockey pushes away his girlfriend Irina (Svetlana Ivanova).

legenda17In the meantime, a deal is struck between Soviet sports authorities and the NHL on having a “super series” between Canada and the USSR. (In fact, no one called it a “super series” in 1972- not in Russia- but the linguistic anachronisms abound in this film; modern-day slang is especially jarring). Before that event, however, the Soviet team plays at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, triumphantly, and upon return, is forced to participate in a rigged game with Spartak. The players are supposed to lose because, they are told, Leonid Brezhnev, who attends the game, is a Spartak fan. Tarasov refuses to cooperate and is fired. An enraged Kharlamov chases Balashov in his car only to get in a terrible crash. Everything here is false. There never was such a game. Brezhnev was a fan of CSKA (Kharlamov’s team), not Spartak. Tarasov quit the national team leadership in 1972 and would be fired from CSKA only in 1975, for different reasons. Kharlamov would get in his first (non-fatal) car crash in 1976, and it will not be politically or emotionally related. In other words, history is manipulated to present the “dark side” of the Soviet system.

Incredibly, in just two or three months, motivated by the unstoppable Tarasov, by his own strength of will and helped by the gruff but good doctor (a memorable cameo by Nina Usatova), the cinematic Kharlamov heals completely and returns to the team, while Irina returns to him.

legenda17And thus the scene is set for the climactic ice battle between the USSR and Canada. The Canadians in this film are not simply opponents –they are almost an alien species. We are constantly shown only two players—presumably, Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke—who look like hairy apes chewing gum and using their hockey sticks mostly to beat and maim the Soviet players. Such cartoonish representations are cringeworthy even in today’s ultra-patriotic Russia—not to mention that they will severely limit the film’s chances of exhibition in the West and thus reduce its potential as a promo poster for the upcoming Sochi Olympics. Anyway, the Canadians’ brute force is no match for the brilliant technique and agility of Kharlamov and friends. The film ends with the first game—and it is clear why. It was a big victory for the Soviet team, who beat Canadians 7:3, while the whole country was glued to TVs (though it was not a direct broadcast, as in the film). The USSR would lose the series, but we part with Kharlamov at the moment of his highest triumph, nine years before his untimely death.

Artistically, Oleg Menshikov as the coach Tarasov carries the film. He first appears as a deliciously sadistic taskmaster, but eventually reveals his wise and tender side, becoming a father figure to his boys. Menshikov chews the scenery as usual, but gives the film the charisma that the other characters just don’t have. Danila Kozlovskii as Kharlamov is a sympathetic presence, but lacks the toughness of a real hero, for all his ice arena heroics. Vladimir Menshov as the devious Party man Balashov is too much of a cliché—though he has his moments. Alejandra Grepi as Kharlamov’s Spanish mother provides the film with just the right dose of pathos and humor.

legenda17The overall impression is mixed. The film is slickly shot and moves effortlessly through its two-hour-plus running time. Clearly, the contemporary Russian cinema has learned some lessons from Hollywood—maybe has learned them too well, given the by-the-book plot points and the unnecessary special effects. It is easy to see why the screenwriter and the director needed to reshuffle the events and create composite characters—they tried to heighten and concentrate the drama—but the numerous anachronisms, the Cold War-style caricatures, and the heavy “patriotic” stuffing leave a sour aftertaste. Legend No. 17 is a cinematic equivalent of fast food: tasty at the time but ultimately unsatisfying. One good thing that may result from this movie is that it will whet the appetite of the audiences—especially young audiences—to learn more about the life and times of the main characters. Reality is always more interesting than fiction.

Sergey Dobrynin

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Legend No. 17, Russia, 2012 (released 2013)
Color, 133 minutes
Director: Nikolai Lebedev
Screenplay: Mikhail Mestetskii, Nikolai Kulikov and Nikolai Lebedev
Cinematography: Irek Khartovich
Music: Eduard Artem’ev
Production designers: Viktor Petrov, Vladislav Travinskii
Cast: Danila Kozlovskii, Oleg Menshikov, Vladimir Menshov, Roman Madianov, Svetlana Ivanova, Alejandra Grepi, Boris Shcherbakov, Aleksandr Iakovlev, Aleksandr Lobanov, Valentin Smirnitskii, Todd Jensen, Götz Otto, Daniel Olbrychski.
Producers: Leonid Vereshchagin, Anton Zlatopolskii, Nikita Mikhalkov, Mel Borz, Svetlana Dalí and Aleksandr Kharlamov.
Production companies: Nikita Mikhalkov’s TriTe Studio, TV Channel Rossiia 1 and the Federal Film Fund.

Nikolai Lebedev: Legend No. 17 (Legenda No. 17, 2012)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin © 2013

Updated: 18 Oct 13