01 January 2006
I like things that shoot. I wear Russian soldiers' patches. I joke that my favorite car is a tank. I'm no military buff, but I enjoy healthy amounts of historic controversy. I love men in uniform, as every real female should. Most important, I am one of those few romantics who still believe that it is dolce et decorum pro patria mori - if the cause is worthy, of course. After all, bellum and bellus do share the stem.
My family history is not particularly militaristic. My Georgian grandfather used his engineering and architectural training to construct bomb shelters during the Second World War. My Russian grandfather spent this war fighting in the navy, though his fondest memories include partying with Americans in northern city Murmansk at the beginning of the war. The latter's son, my uncle, was the only family member to have a successful military career out of his own volition. He was even stationed in one of the most dangerous places on earth - Afghanistan. USSR's participation in this war is justifiably comparable to America's Vietnam, cause- and consequence-wise.
The 9th Company is a film directed and starred by Fedor Bondarchuk about the first Afghan war - its unresolved completion, to be exact. It was released in September 2005 and became an instant highly acclaimed blockbuster. At the same time, this blockbuster status damaged its artistic reputation. For this reason I was quite hesitant about viewing 9th Company. Every review I had read sang accolades to its theme, because this is one of the first films to focus on this war, despite the fact that the last Soviet troops evacuated at the end of the 1980's - a testament to the issue's controversy. That is where the praise ended and criticism began - reviews in mk.ru and gazeta.ru in particular both claimed that the film cut corners, left the characters compactly two-dimensional, and tied the ends into a neat little package, like any true Hollywood aspiration should. Word of mouth, however, had something different to report - in fact, a couple of invidiuals even claimed that the film was so difficult to stomach, that they were unable to sleep afterwards. The weight and the diversity of opinions combined began to overpower the value of 9th Company and made me question whether it was to live up to any of the expectations - good or bad.
The film is loosely historic and covers the end of the first ten year-long Afghan war during the 1987-1989 period. It follows a group of young men from the time they enlist in the army, throughout their brutal training in Uzbekistan, and to their central participation in the Soviet military operations in the region in order to "rid the friendly Afghan nation of imperialism". In Afghanistan itself, the boys are ordered to defend a conquered mountainous territory at the height of 3,234 meters, unaware that the poorly orchestrated war is over, and the troops are being withdrawan, all but their own unit. It has its predictable moments - a physically scarred and psychologically damaged trainee commander, a local whore, or a soldier's first accidental kill. Perhaps such aspects are necessary to demonstrate the non-exceptional, every-man nature of the war's participants.
In the beginning of the movie, a young soldier interrupts a teacher's explanation of Afghanistan's geography, history, religious and multi-ethnic makeup, "Does it really matter whom we fucking waste?"
"Never in the history of the country had Afghanistan been conquered", the teacher replies.
This sense of impending doom in his voice sets the mood for the entire film, even prior to the massacre. Some of the scenes are at least comparable or exceed the brutality of those in the landing in Normandy introduction in another blockbuster like Saving Private Ryan. The neverending rows of the fiercely approaching mujahideen, as the remaining young Soviet soldiers unsuccessfully attempt to fight them off, resemble the army of ghost warriors sprung from seeds in the myth of the Golden Fleece, only these warriors' current relevance is too close for comfort. The knowledge that this war was not only lost by the Soviets, but also entirely meaningless is responsible for the additional psychological enhancement of gore. There is nothing sweet about USSR's 15,000+ deaths, nor did they have much to do with the Fatherland. While there are no sleepless nights to report on my part, the film succeeds in leaving one feeling quite perturbed.