Dmitriy Kiselev’s overlooked Russian thriller is an exciting and inspirational true account of the first walk in space by a Soviet cosmonaut — a mission that nearly became a tragedy. It’s almost as emotional an experience as Apollo 13 — the worthy cosmonauts demonstrate ‘the right stuff’ under much more trying conditions. The beautifully produced and splendidly acted show makes it seem a crime that foreign movies this good are routinely denied theatrical exhibition here. The Blu-ray comes with an excellent pair of featurettes, with the participation of the original spacewalker Alexey Leonov.
2017 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 137 min. / Vremya pervykh (The First Time); Spacewalker / Street Date January 19, 2021 / Available from Amazon / (pretty cheap)
Starring: Evgeniy Mironov, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Vladimir Ilin, Anatoliy Kotenyov, Aleksandra Ursulyak, Elena Panova, Aleksandr Novin, Gennadiy Smirnov, Yuriy Nifontov, Sergey Batalov.
Cinematography: Vladimir Bashta
Visuyal Effects supervisors: Kirill Kulakov, Sergei Nevshupov, Pavel Perepyolkin
Film Editors: Anton Anisimov, Nikolai Bulygin, Alexey Kumakshin, Andrey Shugaev
Original Music: Yuriy Poteenko, Aleksandr Vartanov
Written by Sergey Kaluzhanov, Yuriy Korotkov, Oleg Pogodin
Produced by Sergey Ageev, Timur Bekmambetov, Aleksandr Gorokhov, Evgeniy Mironov
Directed by Dmitriy Kiselev
Late in 2018 Steve Nielson and I rushed out to see Damien Chazelle’s First Man, an interesting character study that perhaps gets us too close to astronaut Neil Armstrong: it was difficult to connect Ryan Gosling’s mass of angst and depression with the beacon of positivity and purpose that was the public Armstrong we all loved and admired. The film’s landing on the Moon was a real downer.
About 16 months earlier, a far more entertaining Russian film could not find a release in America. Chalk that up to the complete disaster of our movie distribution system, even before the Pandemic — although a really sub-par English language dub job may have sabotaged the movie as well. I’ll have more on that issue, a little further down the page.
Released to Blu-ray in January but evading my radar until now, Spacewalker is the best movie about real space-age history since Apollo 13, the film it is immediately compared to in the few reviews it’s received. But ‘It’s the Soviet version of Apollo 13‘ really sells the movie short. As an emotional experience it’s almost as affecting, and as an educational experience it’s simply fantastic. I don’t remember many images of Soviet rockets and space ships being seen much here in the West until the 1970s. We were instead sold the notion of Russians as crude and technologically backward. When our news did mention the Russian space program, the impression given was of a competitor so determined to beat us to the moon, that they sacrificed scores of cosmonauts on risky missions in unreliable capsules.
That’s only partly true: the space race competition had its good and bad aspects. Things didn’t calm down until after Apollo 11 and greater cooperation between the two space-faring nations. Despite the frequent pushes to militarize outer space, joint space experimentation is a shining light of Russian-U.S. relations.
Like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, director Dimitry Kiselev’s Spacewalker is billed as an all-true account. In the 1965 Voskhod 2 mission a pair of cosmonauts strive to be first to accomplish a spacewalk, venturing outside their capsule on an umbilical tether. Unless you’re convinced that everything out of Russia is a propagandistic lie (this is a Putin-era film, of course), I’m pretty sure you’ll find Spacewalker to be convincing, involving and reasonably dogma-free. The key astronaut Alexey Leonov participated in the making of the movie. When Moscow advances the date to accomplish a spacewalk forward by two full years, the engineers and cosmonauts have no choice but to comply. All criticize the mandate from above, which to some decree implies that a certain loss of life will be tolerated (or expected?). This is not all that different than how things were for American test pilots of the 1950s. They were near-anonymous (even Chuck Yeager, for several years), and of course the work was extremely hazardous. Quite a few were killed testing experimental aircraft. Competition among test pilots did not encourage the prioritization of safety. It’s arguable that NASA’s astronaut safety standards were more rigorous mainly because the highly visible program needed broad public support.
Alexey Leonov (Evgeniy Mironov) has an ‘inspirational’ backstory: as a child he ran out to a field at night to see if a mother bird really did sit on her nest all night. In cosmonaut training he gains the attention of the chief engineer Korolev (Vladimir Ilin) and the space program’s military head Kamanin (Anatoliy Kotenyov) by taking an incredibly positive, fearless attitude at all times. His best pal, the older cosmonaut Pavel Belyaev (Konstantin Khabenskiy) isn’t thrilled when Leonov goes through with a parachute test after the mission is scrubbed for bad weather. Belyaev’s foot is injured but Leonov insists that he won’t fly with anyone else.
The big space mission Voskhod 2 goes forward under terrible conditions. There’s no time to design a properly flexible space suit that will allow Leonov to exit and re-enter the capsule’s narrow airlock. Not only that, the one test rocket for the mission blows up, so the cosmonauts will be guinea pigs for some parts of the mission: ‘gee, we hope those four untested systems work as expected.’
Spacewalker depicts techno-jeopardy thrills as experienced by the crew of Apollo 13, only under much less sophisticated conditions. Leonov and Belyaev are basically in a nuts-and-bolts capsule jerry-rigged from an earlier design not intended for a spacewalk. Most of the mission works beautifully, with the impressive Russian booster stages peeling off as expected, and automatic systems functioning well. But when the cosmonauts extend the airlock module and open and close air valves, the capsule sometimes seems no more space-worthy than a school bus. The switches and gauges could be from the 1940s.
The most winning aspect of the show are the cosmonauts themselves. Leonov is a gung-ho trouper, welcoming hazards if it means he can better serve his motherland. He’s no different than Scott Glenn’s Alan Shepard in The Right Stuff, signing up with a handshake and a big smile: “Sounds dangerous —- count me in! Leonov isn’t above breaking with protocol to rudely state his commitment to the top military man — who immediately recognizes Leonov as exactly what he needs, a fearless pilot who can be counted on to do the right thing, not just follow orders. Belyaev is nowhere near as demonstrative, yet we immediately see why Leonov wants him — when things go sideways during the mission, Belyaev is Leonov’s equal for calm nerve and resolute determination.
Although celebrating the Russian spirit past and present is a major part of Spacewalker, enough time may have passed for the personal stories to be presented in a realistic manner. The cosmonauts’ wives hope for the best and fear the worst. They don’t for a minute believe that they’ll get accurate reports from the space command — it’s assumed that everything is grand until there are dead bodies to be buried, and then a widow is expected to keep putting on a good show. All this is visible on the faces of the stay-at-home wives, who watch the space mission on blurry television… until the transmission is suddenly re-routed to a ballet exhibition. Leonov’s wife personifies an ideal of stoic devotion combined with stunning poise and dignity. Her perfect posture would put Jackie Kennedy to shame.
In one telling scene the dour, pessimistic chief engineer Korolev gives Leonov the option to back out — they can’t guarantee that some awful technical problem won’t kill both of them. Leonov responds with a short speech about overcoming a horrendous childhood without shoes in freezing weather because his father was a dissident, and about his motivation to achieve at all costs. After hearing that admission even Belyaev is ready for a suicide mission too.
The jeopardy in space is very exciting and very scary. Forget the high-tech gadgetry and computers of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity — these guys are stuck in a clunky capsule bolted together like an erector set. Three separate problems almost kill them. The ‘save’ for one is like fixing a vacuum cleaner while it’s running, while you’re being asphyxiated. The airlock is an undersized tube that Leonov can barely fit through. At a crucial moment, he can’t get back in because his spacesuit is over-inflating, and what little flexibility he had disappears entirely. He’s suddenly the rigid Michelin man. He’s barely able to move a finger, let along grab a handle or bend in half to fit through the opening.
Another key moment suggests that Spacewalker isn’t whitewashing Soviet space history: when things go wrong, Leonov stops answering his radio. Ground control at first thinks he may be unconscious or dead, until they see him struggling on the video camera. Why does Leonov stay quiet? — Because he wants to solve the problem, not talk about it. Ground control would want to handle it by committee, or maybe even scrub the mission.
Even more bad luck happens during re-entry, when the spaceship comes down a thousand miles away from its intended landing zone. Some committee members are party apparatchiks that think only of prestige and security –if the capsule might come down on foreign territory, they’d insist that it be destroyed. Korolev knows this, and supportively responds by giving his cosmonauts more autonomy, not less.
Spacewalker is the best film of its kind I’ve seen in quite awhile. Evgeniy Mironov is a winning hero, a walking inspiration. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to have a job that made one attack the day’s work with the same enthusiasm, the same do-or-die spirit? The films few comic details are restrained, as when Leonov climbs in a hospital window with a (faulty) homemade device to help his buddy get more strength back in his leg. The flashbacks to childhood are not too saccharine, and are certainly more pleasant than the psychological misery of Neil Armstrong in First Man.
The special visual effects are organized not to draw undue attention to themselves, but to simply be as credible and realistic as possible. That capsule in orbit looks like a diving bell made from leftover parts, or a metallic Habitrail rig. Remember how the Mercury astronauts had to lobby to be able to pilot their ships, rather than just ride them? At a certain point the chief engineer Korolev trusts his cosmonauts more than he does their faulty automatic systems, and lets Belyaev re-enter for landing manually, something no spacecraft had done before. The movie is doubly worthy because it humanizes Russians and reminds the viewer how much we have in common. We start out wanting to hug Leonov, and by the finish we love the dour engineer and the unyielding military chief as well.
Capelight’s Blu-ray of Spacewalker is a fine-quality encoding of this superior show, which ought to have been a major crowd-pleaser. Image and audio are excellent. You couldn’t have dragged me to the same year’s The Last Jedi but I showed up the first weekend for both The Right Stuff and First Man. Like most of America, at my house Apollo 13 remains a happy memory of an exciting, successful family outing.
Here’s the Main CAVEAT: You need to watch this show in Russian, with English subs. Forewarned about the English-language dub job on this picture, I only took in a couple of minutes of it. Few of the voices chosen are even remotely appropriate. It’s terrible … enough for any distributor to say pass.
In Russian the characters sound like real people and the acting comes together in a powerful way. I never watch dubbed shows if I can help it — why do to the trouble to see movies from around the world if their ‘foreignness’ is neutralized? The ONLY dubbed movie of this kind that ever worked for me was Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 submarine classic Das Boot. The dubbing in that show is so good that I forget it’s been dubbed. If Spacewalker had as good a track, this could have been a major U.S. hit.
Amazon doesn’t list any extras, but the disc is well-appointed. An expected making-of featurette gives us the filmmakers and stars talking about the challenge of properly representing such a proud part of the national history. A slightly longer piece gives us the direct reminiscences of cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, which are very entertaining. He greatly misses his comrade Pavel Belyaev, who died in 1970. There are many impressive details of the Voskhod 2 mission that aren’t covered in the movie.
Spacewalker is HIGHLY recommended. I thank correspondent Mel Martin for bringing it to my attention.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sound: Russian excellent
Supplements: Featurettes: The First Walk in Space (26 minutes), The Story Behind Spacewalker (25 minutes), trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (featurettes too)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 13, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson