If you caught Michael Mann’s Blackhat last year, you’ll remember the eerie sequence in which super-hacker Chris Hemsworth is sent into an evacuated, highly radioactive Chinese nuclear plant to retrieve a hard drive. Those few minutes are the best thing about a highly problematic movie, creating a constant, squirming tension that had audiences cringing from an invisible threat.
The tension quickly dispersed as Hemsworth and company got their prize and bugged out, but imagine grappling with that for an entire movie and you’ll have an understanding of Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker, which Doc Soup presents tonight (Wednesday January 6) and tomorrow (Thursday January 7) at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
A documentary constructed as a conspiracy thriller, The Russian Woodpecker follows Ukrainian activist Fedor Alexandrovich, who grew up close enough to Chernobyl that he has mildly radioactive isotopes in his bones and has come to believe, after decades of admittedly obsessive research, that the 1986 meltdown was somehow connected to a nearby Soviet military installation called the Duga-1.
History tells us the Duga-1 was a massive radar array, part of the distant early warning system designed to track an inbound nuclear strike. The apparatus was powerful enough to cause shortwave radio interference that sounded like a rapid clicking noise – thus, the nickname “Russian Woodpecker” – but it also ran insanely overbudget, to the point where the whole thing was about to be written off as a failure.
Alexandrovich has come to believe that the Chernobyl meltdown was triggered to cover up that failure, and while it’s an outlandish theory it’s not exactly preposterous: you just have to believe that certain politicians could be so monstrously cynical as to contaminate or kill thousands in order to protect their own position. And given that Alexandrovich’s investigation takes place in the shadow of the Ukraine revolution, well, monstrous cynicism just seems like a reasonable point of view.
The Russian Woodpecker screens tonight at 6:30 pm and 9:15 pm, and again tomorrow at 6:45 pm, with director Gracia present for Q&As after each showing. Tickets are available in advance here. You should check it out.