Judge Ben Saylor travels frequently through space...office space, that is.
What if every history book was wrong?
The year 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight, an achievement history attributes to Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. But what if Gagarin wasn't first?
That's the question raised by Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy. In it, the case is laid out that Soviet test pilot Vladimir Ilyushin was launched into space not long before Gagarin's flight, but that his mission was marred by major technical problems that led to his spacecraft crashing in mainland China. The Soviet Union, unwilling to face the embarrassment of a less-than-perfect mission, quickly sent Gagarin into space and launched a confused and contradictory campaign to cover up Ilyushin's flawed flight, according to the film.
The film, directed by Denny Hooten and Sam Oldham, then tells us that Gagarin became an increasingly disillusioned and disgruntled pawn of Soviet propaganda, his behavior ultimately drawing the ire of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. Suspicion is cast on the circumstances of Gagarin's 1968 plane crash death and subsequent investigation.
Fallen Idol relies on a handful of interviewees (most notably Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet premier Nikita), who provide little evidence to back up the film's claims. Much is made of a CIA missile tracking station in the Pacific Ocean's Tern Island that supposedly followed Ilyushin's flight, and host/narrator Elliott Gould (!) tells us that when further information about what the station observed was requested under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, the government invoked national security when turning down the request. Gould adds that the unnamed engineer who supposedly was present on Tern Island at the time of Ilyushin's alleged flight was threatened with jail time if he agreed to be interviewed for the film.
Given the Soviet Union's culture of maintaining the appearance of order, harmony, and perfection, as well as its mania for secrecy, it's entirely plausible that its government would have perpetrated the cover-up outlined in Fallen Idol. The film also convincingly argues that Ilyushin—a highly experienced and well-connected test pilot—would have been a much more logical first man in space compared with Gagarin, who at the time of his flight had a relatively small amount of time in the air, according to the filmmakers. But the film asks you to take its participants—who have little evidence of their own to present—at their word that this is what happened. There is talk of conflicting news reports (and indeed, newspaper pages are shown on the screen), and Gould tells us he has documentation from Tern Island, but the evidence never seems completely conclusive.
Ilyushin, who died in 2010, did not do an on-camera interview for the film. That can easily be explained away by proponents of the conspiracy theory, but the film is mostly silent about Ilyushin's life after the crash, focusing instead on Gagarin's life after his flight. I guess we're supposed to assume that Ilyushin was a willing pawn in USSR's cover-up, but I was a little surprised that more time wasn't spent on him.
Additionally, if the Tern Island allegations are true, why would the U.S., which during the time of Ilyushin's supposed flight was a bitter enemy of the Soviet Union, have kept quiet about it? Ultimately, Fallen Idol presents an interesting scenario, but one that would be awfully hard to prove.
[NOTE: While I'm asking questions, Gould says at the beginning of the film that he's inside a top-secret facility. How did these filmmakers gain access to such an area? Wouldn't it be obvious to whoever is in charge of it that unauthorized personnel are in it? If the government was concerned about a tracking station engineer giving away secrets, wouldn't they also be worried about film cameras being allowed into a classified area?]
Fallen Idol consists largely of archival footage and contemporary interviews. For the most part, the archival footage looks good considering its age, and the interview footage, while not perfect, is more than watchable. Most of the sound consists of dialogue and music, and both come through well enough. Unfortunately, no subtitles are included, which would have been helpful for Sergei Khrushchev's interviews as his English is very thickly accented. For extras, there is a trailer and TV spot for the film, as well as two music videos that set archival footage (most if not all of which appears to have been taken from the film) to what I assume is Russian music.
Fallen Idol is not without value, especially for those with an interest in Soviet and/or spaceflight history. Being interested in both of those subjects, I enjoyed watching this. Unfortunately, the film is rather weak on evidence, which may disappoint both conspiracy theory buffs and those who might otherwise have been convinced of its claims.
Judge Ben Saylor was unavailable to render a verdict, as he traveled to China
for acupuncture treatment before this review was complete.
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