When the mini-series Chernobyl premiered on HBO, its historical rigor and verve elicited a collective sigh from a better part of the Russian film world: This should have been us. We should have made this. The surge of admiring envy was so total that it seemed certain to bear fruit—some of it inevitably radioactive. NTV, a state-owned network specializing in trashy procedurals, has already green-lighted a series about C.I.A. spies “sabotaging” the Chernobyl plant.
This would not be the first time that a single Hollywood production changed the entire course of the Russian film industry. The last time it wasn’t a groundbreaking feat of docudrama, however. It was a cheesy movie starring Kurt Russell as a crabby hockey coach.
The precise inflection point is well documented. Sometime before 2011, leading film producer Leonid Vereshchagin saw Miracle, a sports drama about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s upset victory over the U.S.S.R., in Lake Placid. The film’s story focused on the head coach, Herb Brooks, and his relationship with his team of misfits. Its politics, if you could call them that, were hardly more complicated than a stadium chant of “U-S-A!” It made zero attempt to find humanity on the other side. Sample dialogue: “These guys ever smile?” “They’re Russians. They get shot if they smile.”
The real miracle, if you will, was that Vereshchagin saw the film at all. During its original theatrical run, it made $64 million at home, a respectable though by no means outstanding number, and $67,000—yes, that’s thousand—in the rest of the world. Apparently, the story of a 24-year-old semi-finals victory in a regionally beloved sport didn’t make for riveting cinema outside the U.S.
Except for one place, that is: Russia.
“I immediately wanted to make a similar film, but the other way round,” Vereshchagin said in an interview. “One of the most vivid memories of my youth is our team’s legendary defeat of the Canadian pros in the first game of the 1972 Summit Series. It was one of those rare events that united the whole country in one swell of patriotic pride.”
The game was, indeed, spectacular, and the rivalry with Canada so ingrained in the Soviet mind that Vladimir Vysotsky, the Russian equivalent of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, had devoted whole songs to it. But there was something else that made the reverse-Miracle idea so appealing in the Putin era. The Soviet Union lost the second game and the whole 1972 series is indeed remembered as a national triumph—by the Canadians.
Get Me Re-Write
For years, the Russian film industry, which in part subsists on ideologically tinged state financing, had been churning out World War II dramas. In a country still obsessed both with its wartime sacrifice and with being globally under-credited for it, it was the easiest way to recapture that “one swell of patriotic pride” again and again. But all genres live in cycles, and by 2010 or so the Russian war movie had hit the nadir.
“You can’t just have battalions … tossing themselves in front of machine guns all the time,” says Slava Malamud, a Russian-American sports journalist. “People want relatable stories. And sports are all the rage now, once again becoming an extension of foreign policy, so it all fit together perfectly.” Vereshchagin drafted some screenwriters, including Mikhail Mestetsky, to write a script that would become Legend No. 17.
The jersey number belonged to Valeri Kharlamov, the famed Soviet forward. The writers treated the project as a full-on biopic, slowly building from Kharlamov’s unusual early childhood (he was half Spanish) to his Summit Series brilliance. Meanwhile, the producers, according to Mestetsky, wanted nothing less than a full ideological inverse of Miracle, demanding entire scenes be lifted from the American film wholesale.
“Can you imagine how horrible it is for a screenwriter who’s done his job to be then told to stick someone else’s scene into their script?” Mestetsky said in an interview, speaking with rather unusual candor. “But Vereshchagin told us: This is the only way, no ifs or buts. The director, [Nikolai] Lebedev, was just as horrified, because he knew it would be him catching all the flak for stealing a scene, not Vereshchagin.”
A full ideological inverse of Miracle, demanding entire scenes be lifted from the American film wholesale.
In a way, this was perfectly consistent with the history of Soviet manufacturing, wherein a factory director would come back from a foreign business trip with the latest, say, radio, plop it in front of a konstruktorskoye buro (in-house design shop), and demand that they reverse-engineer it. In a few cases, the resulting object would outperform the original; similarly, Legend No. 17 is in many ways a superior film to Miracle, especially in its early sections.
When it came to the climactic game, things got a bit more problematic. Miracle had understandably neglected to mention that the U.S. proceeded to get consistently creamed by the Soviets in all future hockey encounters. Legend No. 17 went one step further, stopping the film cold after game one.
And, of course, the film’s Other Team, seven-foot-tall Vikings who played helmetless to intimidate the foe, were even more beastly looking than the grim Soviets of Miracle. I once listened to Vladislav Surkov, the chief ideologue of Putinism, of all people, complain at a Moscow party that the portrayal of the Canadians could have been handled more sensitively.
No matter. The film cost about $13 million, in the higher-but-not-outrageous range for domestic productions. It made three times that; across Russia, people were reported to cheer in theaters, screaming “Goooooal” every time Kharlamov scored. It was a big, and genuine, hit. Audiences turned out to have been starving for a more benevolent kind of jingoism, one that didn’t require scores of on-screen deaths—just on-screen scores. “Paradoxically,” said Mestetsky at the time, Legend No. 17 “might do serious harm to our industry. Because the state didn’t used to realize that movies could be patriotic and financially successful at once. Now they’ll demand that every movie they finance be like this and have the same effect.”
Basketball on Ice
He had no idea. Vereshchagin’s next film made in this template, Going Vertical, came out with all the machinery of the state whirring behind it. The Ministry of Culture had even cleared its opening weekend of Hollywood competition, “asking” the distributors to move down the premiere dates for the latest Maze Runner installment and, more cruelly, Paddington 2.
Despite being set in the world of basketball, it managed to be even closer to the original template. It “is basically a Miracle remake,” says Malamud. “They have the embattled coach who wants to build a team ‘his way’ no matter what the authorities want, a star who battles his demons, another star who is battling an injury, scary unbearable opponents. I almost expected the coach to scream, ‘You were born for this,’ and I wasn’t too far off.” This time, the specific game being dramatized was the U.S.-Soviet clash at the Munich 1972 Olympics. The other event most of the world associates with the Munich Olympics is treated as a footnote.
Ideologically, Going Vertical was a tad more loaded than Legend No. 17, filled with little nods at Russia’s current resentments toward Western-leaning Ukrainians and Balts, and, of course, treating the Americans as brutes. But the biggest change came from an unexpected direction: if anything, it was more Hollywood than any Western sports docudrama that came before it. “They basically said, ‘Screw realism, let’s just throw some C.G.I. at this,’” laughs Malamud. “I mean, Miracle went so far as to have players actually learn to skate the way they skated in 1980. The goalie had to learn the obsolete style, which nobody had used in 30 years. In Going Vertical, they are dunking and smashing backboards like a bunch of freaking Shaqs.”
The other event most of the world associates with the Munich Olympics is treated as a footnote.
Having dunked on poor Paddington, the film grossed more than $53 million in the cleared-out field—and that’s considering that the ruble had lost half its value since the Legend No. 17 days. By the spring of 2018, improbably enough, it was Russia’s most successful film of all time.
On April 19, with Going Vertical still in some theaters, Danila Kozlovsky—the star of Legend No. 17—released his debut feature as a director. It was set in the world of Russian league soccer, starred Kozlovsky himself, and was entitled simply Coach. The two notable things about Coach were its refreshing lack of Western villains and a subplot acknowledging corruption in Russian pro sports. Despite the World Cup fever that was gripping Russia at the time, it grossed a somewhat disappointing $13 million. Perhaps what held it back was the unexpected personal nature of the story—for all its clichés, this was a movie about one man’s struggle to put himself back together after a career implosion, closer in spirit to Moneyball than to Miracle; perhaps it was the fact that it wasn’t another dramatization of a Soviet-era victory.
Not to worry. Recently, Vereshchagin announced the development of another surefire hit, this one chess-themed and entitled The World Champion. It will depict the 1978 championship match between the dissident emigrant Viktor Korchnoi and the Soviet loyalist Anatoly Karpov, surely treating the latter as the hero and the former as the heel. Meanwhile, there is a yet unproduced American script in development, telling the exact same story with reversed polarity: the heroic Korchnoi, the weaselly Karpov. It remains to be seen which one makes it to the screens first.
Michael Idov is a writer and filmmaker based in Berlin.