FILM REVIEW: Hail, Vladimir! in “The Master Plan”

FILM REVIEW: Hail, Vladimir! in “The Master Plan”
A scene from "The Master Plan", a documentary that exposes Russian propaganda in the Baltics. / Photo by CC
By Mike Collier in Riga March 4, 2016

First the disclaimer: I provided the English-language voiceover for “The Master Plan”, a new documentary film from the Baltic states purporting to show the extent and influence of Kremlin-financed NGOs operating in the region. I also know several of the journalists involved in the making of the film – and regardless of any other consideration, they deserve the highest praise for managing to get a film made in the Baltic states, where money for any kind of celluloid adventure is extremely limited. There’s the first contrast with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“The Master Plan” begins with a resume of the history of Russia-Baltic relations, including a straightforward denial of Russian ‘liberation’ at the end of the World War II, moves on to give the views of dissident Russians such as Galina Tymchenko and Artemy Troitsky who have relocated to the Baltic states, and then moves on to its main topic – the activities of pro-Moscow activists in the region such as Maxim Reva, Aleksandr Gaponenko and MEP Tatjana Zdanoka.

While evidence is gradually assembled to back up a claim that some €100mn is spent annually worldwide on supporting pro-Russian NGOs, extensive use is made of footage of a genuinely epic May 9 Victory Day parade in Moscow, of ordinary Baltic Russians celebrating May 9 in Riga, reminders of the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine and footage of the pro-Moscow activists themselves at work – which mainly consists of waving placards, describing everything non-Russian as “fascist” and holding bogus conferences.

A few talking heads appear along the way including A-listers such as Anne Applebaum and Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who coins the ‘Master Plan’ of the title, though in connection with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union project rather than Baltic covert ops), venerable supporting actors such as Edward Lucas and Lev Gudkov, plus, it must be admitted, Western Z-listers such as Julian Lindley-French who are unknown away from the cosy geopolitical conference circuit and whose contributions are likely to lack box office pull.

Perhaps it is because I was myself a hand hired to exercise my vocal talents that the premiere of the film at the Latvian National Library on March 3 leaves me thinking I am far from alone. The succession of stooges “The Master Plan” parades before one’s eyes as evidence of nefarious Kremlin activity strikes one as little more than cheap day-extras milling around in the background of a big-budget Hollywood production.

Anyone who has seen the Coen brothers’ latest film, the hugely enjoyable “Hail, Caesar!”, will testify that film extras can occasionally move centre stage – particularly when they are crypto-Communists with a grudge and Russian submarines are surfacing in strange places. However these real-life players are a uniformly seedy bunch possessing no personal charm, their crude pro-Kremlin positions transparently obvious.

For example, Boris Spiegel, chairman of the hokey ‘World Without Nazism’ organization looks like a sweaty stand-in for Sidney Greenstreet’s obese Gutman in “The Maltese Falcon”. Aleksandr Gaponenko is the sort of B-movie gangster who gets Tommy-gunned in the first reel, while Maksim Reva should be part of the gang in a long-forgotten 1950s teen movie about hop-head riots in the streets of Tallinn. MEP Tatjana Zdanoka would make an excellent stunt double for the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard Of Oz” for broomstick riding scenes.

Frequently their adventures are unintentionally comical, as when Reva is ‘protected’ from the Latvian police by a sympathetic MP throwing his body across him in a parked car. The awkward position in which the two tinpot nationalists find themselves as a result could easily have got them arrested in Russia on grounds of promoting homosexuality in a public place.

On another occasion, two self-styled “anti-fascists” stalk the streets ahead of a demo. “Where are the fascists?” asks one. “I don’t know – and I don’t want to know!” replies the other. Sorry, but if you are an anti-fascist, knowing where the fascists are should be of some interest...

Crucially, this is not a depiction thrust upon these nickel-and-dime extras by the filmmakers – it seems to come quite naturally. But it also is one of “The Master Plan’s” problems – it is quite hard to see such losers, inhabiting an almost Graham Greene-ish world of cheap office rentals, soiled bills in envelopes and constant police surveillance as really serious threats capable of influencing even the most credulous babushka’s mind. If €100mn is really being spent on such a mismatched assortment of awkward oddballs, one cannot help thinking the Kremlin is wasting its money.

Big budget stooges

Of course the real money is elsewhere. The footage of May 9 in Moscow from Russian state media is genuinely epic in scale and execution, a cross between “Ben Hur” and “Triumph of the Will”. It’s easy to see why that might impress a vast audience and work them into a nationalistic lather. Similarly, the Russian state media channels themselves with their relentless barrage of brilliantly presented misinformation are more blockbuster than arthouse.

The sums doled out to the aforementioned regional-level Baltic foot-soldiers are tiny compared to the financial support that the Kremlin is believed to lend to the likes of France’s National Front and other ‘If only we had our own Putin’-type Western political parties. But that, as the filmmakers themselves admit, is a more recent phenomenon that has only risen to prominence during the two-year process of making “The Master Plan”.

So “The Master Plan” must fight an unequal contest, but makes a pretty good job of it. Inevitably it will be accused of being ‘counter-propaganda’ and there are a couple of questionable editorial decisions such as a tendency to bracket all Baltic Russians together as a homogenous group and an implicit suggestion that laying flowers on May 9 is itself a pro-Putin act. For some it’s just ‘Russia party day’, while for others it’s a genuine memorial for a relative who fought in the war.

Another problem “The Master Plan” must deal with is their subjects’ unwillingness to communicate. That’s a pity because not only does it force the filmmakers to insert their own explanations of the radicals’ activities (lending further credence to the counter-propaganda claim), but mainly because given enough rope the protagonists are remarkably effective at hanging themselves. For example, when Gaponenko explains that US troops are in the Baltics in order to “build concentration camps and kill all the Russians” no additional editorial comment is required.

Yet even without a big budget, “The Master Plan” does have genuine stars of its own, and they are all Russian.

Troitsky is as charming and urbane as ever. There is more drama in listening to Tymchenko break off a sentence midway to slurp her coffee than there is in a parade of 1,000 Iskander missiles. The quietest scene of all – Tymchenko’s staff of Russian volunteer journalists sitting around shaking their heads and wondering how to tell the truth – is the one that lives longest in the memory and gives the greatest evidence that a large number of Russians want to see real politicians and real news, not the hammy two-bit actors supplied from central casting.

“The Master Plan”, directed by Juris Pakalnins, is on limited cinema release in Latvia and will be broadcast on Baltic public media channels in April. You can watch the trailer here.