Dir. Nikolai Lebedev. Russia. 2002. 97mins.
Russian production company Mosfilm has every right to be proud of the technical standards achieved by its patriotic saga The Star - but that's about all it can be proud of. Adapted from a novel by Sergei Kazakevich, the son of a Jewish teacher who distinguished himself during World War Two as an intelligence office, the film is reputed to be a favourite of Russian President Vladimir Putin with its single-minded and fierce loyalty to the fatherland. Lebedev's adaptation is very much in the spirit of the classic Hollywood war films. However, he never manages to attain their dramatic efficiency, nor does he reach the grand humanistic breath of the best Soviet examples of this genre. At home, the film has had an enthusiastic reception in some quarters. Overseas, its best bet is in the ancillary markets for old-fashioned war epics.
The film takes as its setting early 1944, when the Red Army was preparing to march into Poland while the Germans were trying to regroup for a final offensive. The story follows a Russian patrol, dispatched behind the Wehrmacht's lines to check on the German preparations and then report back to headquarters.
Formulaic to a fault, the script, which plays out like a kind of Clean Dozen, hits every cliche in the book. Nothing is missing, from the process of picking the right scouts for the operation, through the romance of the lovely radio operator with the handsome lead (restricted to brief exchanges in code over the radio), to numerous incidents when a few resourceful heroes overcome masses of enemy villains. Finally there is the process of gradual elimination, whereby the scouts are bravely, but predictably, taken out one by one - but not before they do as much harm as possible to the opposition.
Needless to say all the boys are good-looking and dedicated, even if some of them are a bit wet behind the ears and need to learn that war is tough the hard way. The apocalyptical grand finale still allows them to complete their mission before sacrificing their lives, and an epilogue indicates that this is no fiction but was based on a real incident.
The film's title refers to the radio code for the reconnaissance unit, which offers numerous occasions for 'Star' to call 'Earth' (the codename of the base), with the added value of aerial shots of the area, suggesting of course the point of view of the 'star'. But beyond that Lebedyev doesn't seem particularly interested in putting his own mark on the story. All the characters are sketchy at best, the action scenes are heavy handed, all counter-attack plans are revealed by documents conveniently borne by Germans who happen to be captured and the plot lacks the structure and cohesion to hold it together.
Crisp images, spectacular landscapes and production values galore indicate that nothing was spared to make all the numerous air attacks, shelling and shootings, as realistic as possible. Pity then that an effusively loud orchestral score drowns the images with its emotional outbursts, as if worried that the visuals are not enough to do the job properly.
Prod co and int'l sales: Mosfilm
Prod: Karen Shakhnazarov
Scr: Yevgeny Grigoriev, Nikolai Lebedev, Alexandr Borodjanskij
Cinematography: Yuri Nevski
Ed: Eduard Yermolin
Prod des: Lyudmila Kusakova
Music: Alexei Rybnikov
Cast: Igor Petrenko, Artrem Semakin, Alexei Panin, Alexei Kravchenko, Anatoli Gushchin, Amadu Mamadakov, Yuri Laguta, Andrei Yegorov, Ekaterina Vulichenko