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First People on the Moon, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Stalin-era spaceflight!"
5 stars

"First on the Moon" isn't the first "documentary fantasy" I've seen to postulate a Soviet space program that achieved even greater things than the real thing, and I'm reasonably certain that there's another out there I haven't yet seen. I also suspect that there's more to come: Shooting documentary-style isn't terribly expensive for an independent filmmaker, and the Soviet space program did enough remarkable things that speculating on what they could have accomplished if things went just a little better is fertile ground.

Not that First on the Moon limits itself to "just a little better" - it purports to tell us the true story of Ivan Kharlamov (Boris Vlasov), who landed on the moon in 1938. It's an audacious premise, but one which director Aleksey Fedorchenko and writers Aleksandr Gonorovskiy and Ramil Yamaleyev frequently prove themselves equal to. After all, they've got documentary proof - the NKVD (the predecessor of the more famous KGB) was filming the Soviet people clandestinely, especially in highly sensitive areas like the secret space program, and though the archives are a mess, there's plenty of film to be found by dedicated searchers.

So we learn about Kharlamov, Khanif Fattakov (Aleksei Slavnin), pretty athlete Nadezhda Svetlaya (Viktoriya Ilyinskaya), and circus midget Mikail Roschin (Viktor Kotov). Some of it is via archive footage, with the narrator noting that few records of Kharlamov's early life exist. There are also interviews, with the uncooperative camera operator assigned to Kharlamov, various circus performers who know of Roschin via their community's oral history, and with an elderly Fattakhov (Anatoli Otradnov). The present-day Kharif Fattakhov would have to be around ninety if the "present day" segments are meant to be 2005, and while he does look like the sort of rugged, fit individual that could be vital into his tenth decade, he's charming in a gruff way, talking about the crush he had on Nadezhda or the way the government hushed up the program's existence without undue wistfulness or rancor. He's a guy who's seen a lot in his time and survived long enough to know there's no good in wishing for things to have turned out differently.

Part of what makes Otradnov's performance so good is that he plays it straight, as do the filmmakers. The filmmakers spend some time convincing us of the authenticity of the Stalin-era film by including footage of a training film given to the spies on how to covertly film subjects, and they almost always film a location from the same angle, sometimes partially obstructed, to further emphasize the idea of the hidden camera. The archival footage is black and white and a bit grainy, as if filmed on 8mm, but is generally clear, as though it had been stored properly. Most important, the characters never wink at the camera or engage in anachronism or parody.

That's kind of a tough trick - after all, what would a rocketship built in 1938 look like? The film draws on pulp illustrations and Flash Gordon-like designs, but is mindful of the fact that it would have to be built with the technology of the time. In general, they do a fantastic job - I really adore the spacesuit design, which looks retro-futuristic but also not nearly as practical as later models. The truck used to transport the rocket is a nifty bit of technology which other films might overlook. One thread of the film has a group of present-day students building a scale model of the rocketship based on the original plans, and it's here the filmmakers let the audience in on the joke a bit, both via comments that it took the Americans years to match certain bits of design and a great gotcha moment toward the end.

Getting to that end is the only point where the film occasionally seems a bit off, although that may be intentional. Much of that last act is spent on Kharlamov's journey back home after crash-landing in Chile (not a surprise; a 1939 fireball in Chile is referenced in the opening scenes), and the meaning is clear: The Russian people are capable of greatness, as engineers, survivors, and soldiers, but the truly great were all too often betrayed by paranoid, leaders obsessed wtih secrecy. It's crushingly effective, but also a big change of pace from the more fantastical science-fiction elements of the film's first half.

Which is probably exactly the point - great dreams ruthlessly crushed by those who benefit from the status quo. Stripping the most entertaining elements away is probably the best way to make the audience actually feel what it's like to have such chances at greatness taken away.

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originally posted: 02/10/07 05:20:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/17/06 Blackbrain "The Right Stuff" in Stalin's CCCP. Masterful film work to match archival material. 5 stars
6/16/06 B. "Gorbachev" Tate REWRITE THE HISTORY BOOKS! 5 stars
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