The new World War II tank thriller from Russian writer-director Aleksey Sidorov, T-34, is frenetic, loud and silly. “Fast & Furious with tanks,” is how one producer described it.
It’s also propaganda. The Russian Ministry of Culture ponied up part of the movie’s budget, and once T-34 was done the Russian army reportedly screened it for the troops.
Emboldened by the film’s success, the Kremlin has been scouring the planet for old tanks it can buy back, so that it can help to make more movies like T-34 without having to rely on expensive CGI.
With its big, dumb, computer-generated jingoism, T-34 is hardly alone in the world. In American director Michael Bay’s Transformers, for instance, the robots pose in front of American flags and speechify about freedom.
The Pentagon has donated troops and vehicles to Bay’s films, as well as to countless other productions including Air Force One, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Top Gun and its sequel Maverick, slated for a 2020 release.
But T-34 marks an inflection point. It doesn’t just benefit from government support, it utterly relies on it. The nominal budget was a mere $8 million. The cost had been higher, producer Julia Ivanova explained at the Cannes film festival in May 2018. “We’ve managed to cut it down.”
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By American standards the published numbers are extremely, indeed implausibly, low: the budget for the first Fast & Furious film, for example, was $38 million, the most recent, $190 million.
For this movie, government sponsorship is not only apparent, it’s the point.
T-34 glamorizes a strain of militaristic, backward-looking nationalism that the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin is counting on to mobilize “real” Russians against their “fascist” enemies, a list that includes gays, feminists, Western Europeans and anyone who dares to challenge Putin’s generational grip on power.
T-34 is indeed Fast & Furious with tanks… and regressive, right-wing politics.
The plot is perfunctory. Heart-throb actor Alexander Petrov plays Nikolay Ivushkin, a fearless Russian tank commander on World War II’s Eastern Front. The Germans are pushing toward Moscow, out-maneuvering and out-gunning the brave and doomed Russian defenders.
When we meet him, Ivushkin is behind the wheel of a rickety truck, speeding through German lines with a precious cargo of fuel for his tank. Just one more German tank stands between him and his own armored vehicle.
The German tank fires. The film slows to Matrix-style bullet time, as it often will do over the next 139 minutes, and Ivushkin twists the steering wheel to literally dodge the supersonic shell.
It’s profoundly stupid. In his fueled-up fighting vehicle, Ivushkin manages to kill a bunch of Germans before getting captured along with his crew.
Do the brave, self-sacrificing Russians ultimately escape their prison camp with one of Russia’s most advanced T-34 tanks and a comely Russian woman in tow? Does moustache-twirling Nazi tank commander Klaus Jäger, played by German actor Vinzenz Kiefer, give chase in his own tank?
Do the Russian and German tanks fight a pitched final battle while racing toward each other across a bridge? Do tank shells fly in slow motion? Does the villain fall to his death in his ruined tank, just like the bad guy does in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?
Yes. But for a movie with so many chases, gunfights and tank battles, T-34 is pretty boring and mostly bloodless.
In that regard, it pales in comparison to the classics of the tank genre, such as the 1970 tanks-and-bank-robbery flick Kelly’s Heroes, 1988’s meditative The Beast about a Soviet tank crew that gets lost in Afghanistan and 2014’s Fury, starring Brad Pitt.
Even White Tiger, a weirdo Russian movie from 2012 about a Red Army tank commander who hunts a powerful German tank that might be a ghost, has gravity, pathos and style that T-34 lacks.
But for Russians longing for what they view as a simpler, more heroic time, T-34 hits the right notes.
The point of the film is to “tell the story of war in a way that appeals to the youth but doesn’t prove controversial among those who still keep the Great Patriotic War in their memory,” director Sidorov said in a government press release.
In T-34, the men are men. The women are demure. The Russians cling to icons of the Orthodox Church as they charge into battle. The godless Nazi villains practically cackle with evil glee. The heroes’ tank is a character unto itself, drifting like a street-racer to dodge incoming fire.
T-34 isn’t just bad. It’s bad and popular. Since opening in Russia in late December, T-34 has racked up $32 million at the box office, making it the second most successful Russian movie since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. More than eight million Russians have seen the movie in just six weeks.
Worse, T-34 represents a major return on investment for government propagandists. Now we can expect more Kremlin-funded tank movies. In January, the Kremlin arranged for the government of Laos to return 30 old T-34s in exchange for newer weaponry.
“The equipment transferred by the Lao side is planned to be used during the Victory Parades in various cities of Russia, for updating museum exhibits, as well as for making historical films about the Great Patriotic War,” the Russian defense ministry announced.
T-34 is bad filmmaking and bad politics. But as the Kremlin doubles down, we can expect future flicks to be still worse.