Review: ‘The Russian Woodpecker’ Offers Another View of Chernobyl Disaster


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A scene from “The Russian Woodpecker.”

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Film Buff

In Chad Gracia’s “The Russian Woodpecker,” a Kiev theater designer, Fedor Alexandrovich, investigates his shocking hypothesis connecting a mammoth missile-alert structure near Chernobyl to the 1986 nuclear disaster there. Whatever the facts, Mr. Gracia’s messily structured film works best as a document of fear in today’s Ukraine and as a kind of ghost story about the Soviet Union.

Mr. Alexandrovich spent his early childhood in the city of Chernobyl but was shipped to an orphanage when the radioactive meltdown happened. Presented as an extravagant live-wire creative type, this wild-eyed artist undertakes a symbolic journey back home and a series of hard-hitting interviews with former Soviet officials. He believes the catastrophe was engineered to cover up the failure of the missile-alert system. Westerners nicknamed the structure the Russian Woodpecker for the tapping noise of its shortwave barrage; it resembles the gridwork of a rock concert stage.

The interview parade of graying officials is overwhelming, and Mr. Gracia unnecessarily fosters the sense of a conspiracy theory, partly just by telling a confusingly stitched-together history. But those aspects also make the film feel like a local product, personal to all involved, including the director of photography, Artem Ryzhykov, who was shot and wounded during the 2014 Kiev protests. Mr. Alexandrovich puts that upheaval in the context of what he calls Chernobyl “genocide” and Russia’s 1930s purges.

Mr. Alexandrovich’s adopted persona as activist investigator can make the film feel like a vehicle for his struggle. But when a call from the secret police shakes him up, his air of drama falters, and the stubborn phantom of authoritarianism comes into scarily real focus.



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