Something everyone forgets about the Space Race is that the Soviets won almost every part of it, except the big one. The USA were the first to land a man on the moon but before that the Russians put the first satellite into orbit with Sputnik; got the first person, Yuri Gagarin, into space; had the first manually controlled space flight; the first woman; and in 1965 Alexey Leonov was the first person to get out of his craft and perform a space walk.
Dmitriy Kiselev’s cracking space adventure Spacewalkers is the true story of Pavel Belyayev (Konstantin Khabenskiy) and Alexey Leonov (Evgeniy Mironov). With one a Red Army war hero and the other a hotshot pilot, the two men made history when they successfully walked in space. Beginning in 1963 when Leonov is selected to take part in what many considered to be a suicide mission, this is an epic journey that takes the audience from Soviet testing grounds to the outer limited of our stratosphere, made especially exciting due to some thorough research and the best space visuals since Gravity.
This is the film equivalent of a love letter to Soviet cosmonauts (which is just the Russian name for what the Americans called astronauts). The word translates roughly to ‘sailor of the universe’ and their contribution to man’s venture into the stars is conveniently overlooked in most American films about the Space Race. But make no mistake, these brave men were the very first people to ever exit the limits of our pale blue dot and the fact that a nation younger than 50 years old was able to work out how to get them out there is astonishing.
One of the most interesting details about the film, and one that might be contentious for Western audiences, is the nostalgia it seems to have for the Soviet Union. For those of us who grew up post the wall coming down, a lot of what we know about the USSR concerns Stalinist terror, disastrously planned economies and the phenomenal levels of human rights abuses that happened behind the Iron Curtain. Yet modern Russia does seem to have a certain level of sentimentality for the old system, Putin himself once said that anyone who doesn’t miss the Soviet Union has no heart, yet anyone who wants it restored has no brain.
It’s the little details that speak the loudest, such as the way that the chain of command wasn’t something that could ever be questioned or that the whole outlook was not on the individual but on the society. Belyayev chastises his counterpart in one scene by reminding him “We’re here to follow orders, not our dreams.” Another scene presents their boss and head of the Voskhod program, Sergey (Vladimir Ilin), announcing “Being children of our nation, we all fly in shackles from the moment we’re born. But imagine what would happen if we lost them. We would have lost control and crashed. That’s what kind of people we are.”
Spacewalkers received widespread acclaim in its native Russia and after seeing it it’s easy to see why. It is a fascinating and exciting look at an often overlooked part of the Cold War: the incredible efforts of the Soviet space program and the success it yielded time and time again. Although a lot of it comes off a cliché – this is essentially just the Russian version of Apollo 13 – it has some of the best scenes set in space ever put to the big screen and a level of authenticity which can largely be attributed to having the 83 year old Alexey Leonov serve as consultant. See it on the biggest screen you can.
Spacewalkers screened as part of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival in November 2017.