As far as unconvincing arguments go, The Russian Woodpecker is as sleek as they come. Chad Gracia’s documentary resonates with creativity, suspense and intrigue as it explores doubts and suspicions that surround the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986—but mixed in with all its fascinating information and well-argued points is an unearned sense of grandiosity. As the filmmakers try to tie together the threads of the Chernobyl disaster, cold war paranoia and the modern conflict between Russia and Ukraine, its knots start to slip.
The film predominantly follows Fedor Alexandrovich, a multimedia artist in Kiev who works in theater, film and any other form that suits his fancy. Gracia casts this eccentric man as the wild-eyed hero of his real-life detective story, but Alexandrovich doesn’t claim to be anything of the sort: “I’m not a prosecutor, I’m not a journalist, I’m just a person,” he says. A good journalist’s skepticism might have helped him hone his theories a bit, but that hasn’t stopped him from obsessively researching the Chernobyl catastrophe and its connection to the so-called “Russian woodpecker.”
The titular phrase refers to a radio signal that helped fuel the red scare in the 1980s. Containing a constant tapping noise, the signal was eventually traced back to Chernobyl’s Duga radar system, a mysterious, towering structure of metal beams. While the Russian woodpecker was actually an over-the-horizon radar system designed to detect incoming missiles, speculation at the time translated the transmission as all manner of sinister communist schemes. Some called it a weather-control device, others thought it was part of a brainwashing plot. Alexandrovich of course believes that the Duga system is linked to the Chernobyl disaster—namely, that the nuclear reactor was purposefully blown to cover up the radar system’s functional failings. Duga cost $7 billion, and the penalty for wasting so much government money could have been death.
First-time feature director Gracia impressively presents all the threads of the conspiracy: Motion graphics and 3D models demonstrate the technology in question and whisk us back and forth through the timeline, while Alexandrovich, in full performance artist mode, delivers monologues about the historical information and provides compelling visuals to accompany his ideas. Gracia is able to clearly lay out the pertinent information while imparting a deeper texture of danger and paranoia behind the facts.
Gracia inserts Alexandrovich and cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov into the movie to make their risky investigation as much of a subject as Chernobyl. Much like The Cove became more of a heist movie than anything else, The Russian Woodpecker takes on an All the President’s Men vibe, depicting whistleblowers risking their lives to find the truth. Even Gracis himself becomes part of the story: Early interviews go poorly because Gracia’s subjects do not trust an American in the room, encouraging Gracia to resort to hidden camera footage shot after or instead of official interviews—and at one point even used on our hero Alexandrovich—creating a stronger sense that we’re finally getting to the real truth of a long-time cover-up. Though the format lends interviews with Duga workers, plant employees and investigators more than just a talking-head feel, the constant reaction shots of Alexandrovich with a goofy look on his face can get tiresome. But the impact of the film really starts to muddy when the time comes to tie everything together.
Even if all of Alexandrovich’s claims are correct, he and the film make a chasm-wide logical leap to get to the main takeaway, and that diminishes the credibility of an otherwise persuasive case. Their theory settles on a sort of lone-villain who destroyed Chernobyl to avoid accountability for his expensive but ultimately failed endeavor, the Duga system. Alexandrovich and Gracia want to use the theory to paint the USSR and modern Russia as corrupt and ruthless, which—let’s be honest—isn’t the most difficult argument. I have no need or desire to defend the actions of Putin’s Russia, nor dispute that he is bringing back oppressive and expansionist policies of the Soviet era. Nor do I want to underplay the invasion of Ukraine and the abuse of protesters. But one man acting alone doesn’t really symbolize a government conspiracy. When your mystery ends with “this guy went rogue to subvert the will of the government,” it doesn’t logically follow to say “the government that he subverted is the root cause.” It’s as if the conclusion was always going to be the same no matter what.
The film could have turned into an indictment of the national rule-following that caused the meltdown. Or, if Gracia weren’t so enamored with Alexandrovich, he could have questioned how the artist’s obsession with Chernobyl has led to a compulsion to explain the tragedy regardless of evidence. Instead, The Russian Woodpecker is so convinced of its view that—as much as its issues don’t get in the way it being a well-polished thriller—it doesn’t take the time to be truly thought-provoking.
Director: Chad Gracia
Featuring: Fedor Alexandrovich
Release Date: October 16, 2015