The young soldiers, unsure what they're fighting for or even where, are abandoned on a lonely plateau that is eventually overrun by a faceless enemy. After a bloody but heroic denouement, the lone survivor is left to return to a home country that is itself in crisis, where his experience will be ignored if not scorned.
This plot of myriad American movies about Vietnam is in fact the story line of a new and hugely successful Russian film about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a 10-year military folly that ended in 1989. Russians are flocking to see "Company 9," the first blockbuster about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and one that pulls no punches about the bitterness of defeat.
"During the Soviet Union there was no possibility to make such a film," said Fyodor Bondarchuk, the film's 38-year-old director, who served in the Soviet army from 1985 to 1987. "And for a long time Russia didn't want such a film because Russia didn't want to remember this 10 years of shame. It's an incredible success for a serious film and it shows the audience is ready to think."
Russia's film industry, crumbling just five years ago, is suddenly resurgent and a host of movies including "Company 9" are drawing Russian audiences away from Hollywood staples. "Company 9," which opened Sept. 29, grossed $9 million in its first seven days on screens nationwide, smashing all previous records for both foreign and domestic films.
It tackles a difficult subject without any imposed patriotism or sentimentalization of the country's past. Similar in some respects to the 1987 American film "Full Metal Jacket," it follows a group of soldiers from a brutal boot camp to a bewildering battlefield. The $8 million production, a fat budget in Russia, was shot in Crimea and along the Afghan border in Uzbekistan.
"Bondarchuk has created something in the best tradition of American films about Vietnam," said Nikolai Peshkov, 51, a colonel in the Russian army who served in the infantry in Afghanistan as a young lieutenant and is now active in the Society of Afghan Veterans.
Peshkov said he immediately went to see the film when it opened. He left satisfied that something about the experience of his comrades, long overshadowed by the memorialization of the Russian experience in World War II, had finally reached a mass Russian audience. People here have tended to regard Afghan veterans, particularly the many who emerged crippled and scarred, as the pitiful remnants of an ignoble cause.
"We had a lot in common with our American friends," Peshkov said. "We were in a similar situation. I don't like to talk about defeat, but the execution of both wars was wrong. The soldiers were confused and at a loss, but they were pure in their souls. They died for their brothers like soldiers everywhere."
"Company 9" also resonates with the country's continuing conflict in Chechnya, the Russian republic where raw recruits often end up brutalized or dead.
"For the Russian audience, the experience of the Afghan war is completely mixed up with our experience in the Chechen war, and that's why this is so timely and urgent," said Valery Kichin, a leading Russian film critic. "This film is about any war where people don't understand what they are dying for. The audience remembers Afghanistan, but they also see Chechnya."
The director is the son of the famous Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk, to whom "Company 9" is dedicated. The elder Bondarchuk directed the 1959 World War II classic "Destiny of a Man," another bleak take on the nature of war. "My father was my teacher," Fyodor Bondarchuk said in an interview at MosFilm studios in Moscow, a sprawling facility that was decaying in the 1990s and is now throbbing with activity.
In the mid-1990s, MosFilm was turning out two or three films a year. This year it will produce about 160 movies and television films, more than in the studio's Soviet heyday.
Ten years ago, the younger Bondarchuk, like many of today's contemporary Russian filmmakers, was making his living directing commercials. The national film industry, deprived of state subsidies after the collapse of the Soviet Union, had withered. And a deluge of pirated videocassettes had emptied out movie houses; in the mid-1990s, there were only 10 screens in Moscow, a city of 12 million people.
Now, swank multiplexes open here nearly every month. The boom has been matched by new financing for homegrown productions, as Russian businesses and state television mine the discovery that Russians, while still enjoying foreign movies, also want to see their own stories on the big screen.
The renaissance began in earnest last year with the special effects fantasy "Night Watch," which took in nearly $20 million at the box office, a huge sum for Russia. The film's international rights were purchased by 20th Century Fox, and it has gone on general release in Western Europe.
Success continued with films such as this year's "Turkish Gambit," based on a novel by the best-selling author Boris Akunin and set during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. "Russian film is storming the heights," Kichin said. "And I think the demand will lead to the making of more tough films such as 'Company 9.' Maybe even one on Chechnya."