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In Russian with English subtitles.

Just released on DVD, this is a Russian State sponsored movie about the first time a human went into space. The event occurred in 1961 and Yuri Gagarin, had he still been alive, would have reached his 80th birthday but he died aged only 34 following a plane crash in 1968. Though Pavel Parkhomenko’s experience of film directing may be a bit limited he has nevertheless created what can only be termed as a really good retro movie (in more ways than one if you consider the rockets) which definitely has the feel of 1960s Soviet culture. This isn’t science fiction, it’s dramatised science fact without any aliens or bug eyed monsters excepting, of course, for some of the Politburo hierarchy.

The early 1960s were strange times. The world was gripped in the Cold War and one of the areas of contest was the space race. A few years earlier in 1957 the Soviet Union caused a sensation when they launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and it was all systems go to get a man into space. The Americans had announced a moon landing programme but as yet hadn’t launched more than monkeys in the Mercury space capsules. There was no razzmatazz with the Soviets to compare with the West and even the Soviet public wasn’t aware of space events until they actually happened. Thus, on April 12, 1961 it was a bit of a shock to find out that not only had a man, Yuri Gagarin, been launched into space on a spacecraft called Vostok 1, he had actually gone into orbit.

Satellites and men into space were significant events which demonstrated quite forcefully the fact that the Soviets had very powerful rockets, more powerful than anything from the West. Powerful rockets meant the potential delivery of nuclear bombs and that was very worrying. It was only in 1967 at the Paris Airshow when the Vostok launcher was put on view to the public, allowing the strange looking design to be seen for the first time. Derivatives of the rocket are still used today to launch men and materials into space. It’s a sad reflection that while the Americans have gone through lots of designs which are now defunct, they no longer have the capability of putting a man into space and it’s the Russian rocket which is still used to serve this purpose.

The movie commences with Gagarin’s preparation to get into the rocket and blast off. However, before that happens and also during the event, it delves into the reminiscing of the cosmonaut’s life from an early age under German occupation during World War II, to his training as a pilot in the Soviet Air Force. Coming from a lowly background, his father a peasant woodcutter, he makes his way through college, the military, and eventually selection to become a spaceman! Four people become prominent in the movie, one being Sergei Korolev, the Soviet mastermind behind the space program, and, Gherman Titov, who was Gagarin’s rival to become the first man in space. The others were Nikita Khrushchev and Gagarin’s wife, Valentina. Quite a lot is made of the training programme which involved endurance tests in hot and cold conditions, centrifuges with huge G force pressures and also intelligence and dexterity examinations. During that time two pilots begin to stand out, that being Gagarin and Titov. While both were very keen to be the first man, the final decision was probably a political one and it was likely made by Khrushchev who favoured Gagarin’s background as opposed to Titov who was more of an intellectual.

We are taken into space on board Vostok 1. What comes through is a sense of uniqueness. You begin to experience that this really was the first time a man went into orbit! Use of CGI is made and there are several scenes of simulated real-time video. The latter is the only point of disappointment in the movie. Only at the very end do you see some actual footage from Gagarin’s presentation to the world but it would have been good to watch real scenes from the actual project itself. One aspect which is not properly explored is the effect on Gagarin himself. In order to make the first flight, a very special individual was required with abilities particular to that task, but to then take that individual and put him through a merry-go-round of state promoted publicity is another thing entirely. While the cosmonaut managed this very well, even meeting the Queen, it was a strain on himself and his family. The same was true with Neil Armstrong who became reclusive. Oddly enough, it transpired that the second men, Titov and Aldrin, were probably better suited in nature to have become subjects of massive publicity. One wonders what will be the effect of the same on the first human to set foot on Mars or to travel to the nearest star?

The movie does seem to capture the uniqueness of the Soviet psyche prevalent the time and as such it can appear to be somewhat alien to watchers from the West. There are Soviet sayings and jokes which don’t really translate into English but this is all part of the fun. Perhaps we are too used to American movies! Overall, this is a very good movie which is definitely worth watching because it represents a very significant point in history, the first time a human being left the surface of the planet and went into space. Many more followed and in the process they made much longer voyages, some dying in the process, but it’s always the first that will be remembered by everyone. It’s not a film full of rocket science and technology and you won’t find many details of the Vostok spacecraft on display but there are other programmes on this elsewhere. Rather, it’s a film about people and a challenge, a challenge which they overcome and master for the benefit of all. Khrushchev thought he was doing it for the Soviets but it transpired that Gagarin represented the world.

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