A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
If the conspiracy suggested by Chad Gracia’s Sundance prize-winning documentary, “The Russian Woodpecker,” turns out to indeed be true, it will have uncovered one of the most shockingly insidious genocides in human history. Not only is the film’s subject, Fedor Alexandrovich, whole-heartedly convinced that the Chernobyl disaster was committed purposely by high-ranking Russian officials, he claims to have found the precise man responsible for ordering the destruction of the Ukraine-based nuclear plant. Considering that 985,000 lives have reportedly been claimed by this catastrophe, this isn’t the sort of theory to be taken lightly.
Alexandrovich himself was a resident of Chernobyl when he was forced to evacuate. It took 36 hours for local citizens to be notified of the radiation leak, and 18 days before Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the Soviet Union with the news. The belatedness of this response makes George W. Bush’s prolonged reading of “My Pet Goat” look flat-out sensible in contrast. Left with radioactive strontium in his bones and deteriorating eyesight, Alexandrovich is determined to prove that the tragic events that took place on the evening of April 26th, 1986, were no accident.
What’s curious about Gracia’s approach is its pronounced theatricality. Both he and Alexandrovich have a background in theatre, and it clearly shows in staged scenes where impassioned monologues are delivered to the camera and artful symbolism is displayed with no trace of subtlety. These sequences are effective in portraying Alexandrovich’s mounting obsession, yet they call into question the authenticity of the film’s supposedly unguarded moments as well. There’s a sense that the film may be, in fact, a colossal instance of performance art fueled by one man’s entirely defensible paranoia at the malevolent forces threatening to rebuild Putin's cherished Soviet Union and ignite World War III. This particular conspiracy may not be true, but it might as well be.
The most haunting passages in the film occur when Alexandrovich sifts through the wreckage of his own country irrevocably marked by the evil acts committed against its people by dictators like Stalin. There are echoes of Joshua Oppenheimer’s far more straightforward “The Look of Silence” in scenes where Alexandrovich exposes the crippling denial within various citizens who refuse to face the atrocities that unfolded in their own backyards. Horrifying images of ravaged corpses—the victims of a Stalin-enforced famine during the early ’30s—wouldn’t look out of place in a Holocaust museum. “We live in a criminal society,” says Fedor’s mother, and her words prove to have an alarming resonance. Now that the missile responsible for destroying the Boeing 777 while in flight over Ukraine last July, killing 298 passengers, has been confirmed as Russian-made, Alexandrovich’s ideas are poised to be embraced by a wide array of conspiracy theorists as this film continues to be discovered and debated.