Conspiracy theories are in right now. Okay, maybe they never went away but it seems as if there’s a conspiracy theory associated with almost everything in today’s day and age. Just go the down rabbit hole of The Pixar Theory or watch Fox News as proof that nearly anything can have hidden plotting going on. On first blush I thought The Russian Woodpecker would be one of those insane films like Room 237, taking a concept and piling on a series of bizarre coincidences, with little to no foundation, as a means of showing a grander and more nefarious plot. And that’s before you see the doc’s star, kooky Russian director Fedor Alexandrovich. What follows is a breathless 80-minutes involving questions of government treachery, nuclear disaster, and a string of violent and corrupt acts Russia and the Ukraine are still battling to this day.
April 26th, 1986: The nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in the Ukraine suffers a catastrophic failure, spewing radiation into the air. Twelve days later, citizens were forced to evacuate, leaving a barren wasteland that’s still covered in radiation. Fedor Alexandrovich grew up in Chernobyl’s wake, theorizing that the Russian government intentionally destroyed the reactor as a way to distract from the failure of their own expensive satellite meant to spy on America.
It’s wrong starting this review by saying The Russian Woodpecker is a fun, if incredibly sobering film, but it’s true. Director Chad Garcia casts his eye on a serious situation, but it’s difficult not immediately expecting him to document the ravings of a wild-eyed madman and that may be the film’s more nuanced intention.
We’re told Fedor Alexandrovich is insane yet brilliant and those two dichotomies are right upon first seeing the man we’ll spend the next 80-minutes with, especially as he starts envisioning ways of turning the documentary into an experimental art film. It is this unconventionality that helps the other side’s argument that Alexandrovich is crazy. His sheer determination and devout belief in the Chernobyl conspiracy threatens to derail the audience’s enthusiasm, but once Fedor settles down and starts discovering things, he starts making a lot of sense.
Fedor becomes as much of the Russian Woodpecker of the title as its source, the mysterious hammering sound that plagued radio waves in the 1970s-1980s (and that has recently come back) and was, ultimately, traced back to the large Duga over-the-horizon antenna near Chernobyl. As he interrogates various members of the Ukrainian government he prods them, making most visibly uncomfortable, studying them for any little indication that they’re covering something up….and Alexandrovich and Garcia give a compelling argument that they are.
Garcia and crew lifts the veil, showing how the Ukraine still battles against the yoke of Russian control nearly thirty years after the Chernobyl disaster and almost 25 years since the Cold War ended. A brief disclaimer, forced into the film out of Fedor’s own terror, mentions that The Russian Woodpecker isn’t meant to instill animosity between Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine, a mea culpa from a small child hoping to distance themselves from a far bigger bully.
Fedor’s originally sets out to prove that Chernobyl was a patsy utilized to cover-up the expensive failure that is the Duga antenna. For Fedor, and likely many other Ukraine residents, Chernobyl is their 9/11 and yet the lack of any serious investigation boggles the mind. Despite many of those in power being dead, particularly the prime mover and shaker Alexandrovich pins as the instigator of the Chernobyl disaster, there’s a serious iron grip (pun intended) on those the documentary interviews. One powerful hidden camera interview has a top official admitting he did everything in his power not to give information in a moment that seems ripped from an Errol Morris documentary. One interview subject says that, despite the war ending, many of the old guard “took an oath,” remaining adamant in their blind devotion to Communism, and even Fedor’s own parents continue to fear a return to the world of gulags and other tortures. That’s pretty easy to deduce, particularly from the one subject who says Stalin wasn’t a bad guy!
All of this dovetails with near divine providence with the growing animosity in the Ukraine as the Russian government seeks a reintegration with the country. We’re given snippets of news reports showing how, in spite of the fall of the USSR, the Ukraine has never been entirely free. As Fedor enmeshes himself deeper into his investigation, a secret meeting with a member of the police and threats to Fedor’s family cause him to abandon the production. The once outspoken crusader for justice ends up the antihero he previously talked about, trying to turn the documentary away from its chosen subject to protect himself and his family. Watching this once charismatic man brought low is the documentary’s strongest moment, further proof that Communist Russia is alive and well.
As mentioned previously, Chad Garcia and crew turn in a work on par with the most biting work of Errol Morris. The Russian Woodpecker is a sobering, necessary documentary with long-standing ramifications still being felt today.