9th Company Review
With our own Afghan conflict stretching on interminably with no appreciable gains made, seemingly daily reports of new clashes with Taliban forces that just refuse to fade away, and no end in sight, big budget Russian blockbuster 9th Company is a remarkably timely piece of film. The biggest budget Russian film ever made at the time of its release – that title has since been claimed by a pair of other films currently in production – tells the powerful true story of a platoon of Russian soldiers simply forgotten and left to die at the tail end of Russia’s campaign against Osama Bin Laden-led fighters in Afghanistan. With an approach highly sympathetic to the Russian youth caught up in a fight by forces they never had any hope of understanding and highly critical of the incredible – and incredibly pointless – waste of life the film is thematically strongly reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s Platoon while it is shot with such high gloss and incredible production standards that it could easily be a lost Michael Bay picture.
The film is structured in the typical war film pattern: beginning with a troop of new recruits saying goodbye to their civilian lives and being sent off to basic training. There is the artist, the lover, the down and outers with no option but military service. They all have their own histories, their own distinct personalities, their own regional quirks. What unites them in the early going, however, is the invincibility that comes with youth. They are brash and brave and entirely ignorant of what lies ahead. Their drill sergeant is a typical hard-ass, damaged by his own time at the front and afraid that weakness on his part will lead to weakness on theirs that will get them all killed and simultaneously desperate to return to the front himself to try and exorcise his own ghosts. And when they finally reach the front it is nothing at all like what they expect: huge stretches of boredom punctuated but sudden outbursts of bloody violence, surrounded by a hostile culture they understand absolutely nothing about. As they proceed deeper and deeper into their tour the camaraderie fades until they are left with the sinking understanding that there is nothing noble in this war, nothing particularly heroic, the best they can hope for is to simply survive.
While 9th Company plays all of the standard war film cards it is elevated far above most similar efforts on a number of levels. First is the simple timeliness of the piece, the Russian campaign in Afghanistan eerily mirroring our own on a number of levels. Watching military forces frustrated by a Bin Laden led force with the ability to appear and disappear at will, unnervingly resilient against seemingly overwhelming odds, has a startling resonance with our own situation.
Another great strength of the piece is the young cast. While each of them plays as a basic type on first arrival, each recruit trying to carve out their own place in the platoon, the walls quickly come down and the interactions between the group ring unerringly true whether rivalries, friendships or lingering grudges. The film revolves around a very large cast of characters and for it to succeed all of them need to play as distinctive, full blooded people and they do exactly that, right across the board. Whether you like them or not as individuals you recognize them and can’t help but care about them as their situation rapidly degrades.
The final major piece elevating 9th Company are the production values, the high budget – by Russian standards, anyway – going far indeed, every penny being well spent on screen. Shot on location with a huge array of military equipment at their disposal this is film making on a large scale and it never fails to dazzle. Watch for the pursuit sequence through the underground cave network in particular: absolutely stunning stuff.
The war film persists as a genre for a very simple reason. When done well placing regular people in extreme situations allows an intelligent film maker to make serious statements about human nature while the larger setting also allows for a high degree of political and social criticism. 9th Company does both well, boldly critical on the large scale while also sharply observant and sensitive on the small. Very highly recommended.