MOSCOW — It would be easy to assume the Russian blockbuster that hit theaters last week is a nationalist feel-good flick that really sticks it to the Americans.
The movie, "Going Vertical," is the fact-based story of the Soviet men's basketball team that upset the heavily favored U.S. squad in the controversial 1972 Summer Olympics final. Americans remember that Cold War-era defeat as a gold medal stolen from Team U.S.A. after the refs gave the Soviets an extra last-second chance.
The 51-50 loss broke the Americans' streak of seven-straight Olympic golds, and the U.S. team's players did not accept their silver medals. But in Russia, this is their Olympic miracle, a triumph still relished decades later.
Given that the U.S.-Russian relationship has sunk to post-Cold War lows, you might think this docudrama is a propaganda effort timed to draw attention from Olympic officials' decision to ban Team Russia from the 2018 Winter Games. Nearly half of Russians polled consider the doping scandal that led to the ban an international conspiracy, according to a recent survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center.
Russia's prominent pro-Kremlin TV host, Dmitry Kiselyov, recently connected the film about past Olympic glory to the current Olympic snub on his weekly news program, decrying the "unjust and painful" ban before segueing into a glowing segment about the new movie: "But when has it ever been easy for our athletes?"
But while "Going Vertical" focuses on the difficulties faced by Soviet athletes, this is not a particularly anti-American film. In fact, it's not a particularly pro-Russian one, either.
"I really wanted to make a good film about a basketball team," director Anton Megerdichev, who shot "Going Vertical" in 2016, told me after a recent media showing. "It's not supposed to be for or against any country."
That is, not any country that exists today. If anything, "Going Vertical" takes its best shots at the Soviet Union and the discomforts of Communist society perhaps forgotten by some of the 58 percent of Russians who regret the collapse of the U.S.S.R., according to a December poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center.
The film's protagonist, coach Vladimir Garanzhin (Vladimir Kondrashin in real life; the film renames him for reasons that are not explained), must overcome sports officials who, under Leonid Brezhnev's portrait in dark boardrooms, conspire to undercut his efforts to assemble the team he knows can beat the Americans.
The bureaucrats are afraid of the consequences for them if Garanzhin can't deliver on his bold promise of gold. They also have considerable leverage over him. The coach is trying to save up for an operation for his son and doesn't trust Soviet medicine, so he needs their help to get an exit visa so the boy can get better treatment abroad.
The problems don't stop there for Garanzhin, portrayed by Russian leading man Vladimir Mashkov.
Team U.S.S.R. has a talented Lithuanian forward who wants to defect to the West. The team's sweet-shooting guard (a dramatization of Russian Sergei Belov, upon whose memoir the screenplay is loosely based), is haughty and trying to play through a sore knee. A player from Soviet Georgia nearly quits to attend a traditional wedding in the Caucasus. (Garanzhin solves that one by bringing the whole team to the nuptials, where he chugs "chacha" hard liquor from an ornately decorated horn to the approval of a mountain patriarch.) And the star big man has a rare heart ailment that he tries to hide from the coach and his fiancee.
Each time the team plays abroad, they have to sneak in things unavailable in the U.S.S.R. — contact lenses, analgesic rubs for sore knees, a Bible. The bureaucrats are always coming up with new ways to sell out the coach while slipping the nominally amateur players envelopes of cash after their victories, and one member of the coaching staff turns out to be a KGB snitch. When the action finally does get to the Munich Games, one particularly slimy Soviet basketball functionary, fearing failure, tries to turn the Palestinian terrorist attack on members of the Israeli Olympic team into an excuse to pull the Soviets from the tournament.
Lots of this is contrived for dramatic effect. The real-life Lithuanian, Modestas Paulauskas, never expressed any desire to defect, according to Ivan Yedeshko, one of four surviving members of the 1972 team and the only one to attend the premiere. Big man Alexander Belov's cardiac sarcoma was diagnosed not by an American doctor before the Munich Games, as in the film, but by Soviet doctors in 1978, the year Belov died. Likewise, actor Otar Lortkipanidze, who plays Soviet shooting guard Mikhail Korkia, acknowledges that some of the wacky scenes from the mountains of Georgia were done for comic effect.
But there's a truth at the core of this film that the U.S. play-by-play announcers in ABC's live broadcast of the real game keep getting wrong. This Soviet team is not just "the Russians." Hoops fans in Georgia, no friend to modern Russia, still celebrate the Soviet victory, Lortkipanidze said. Lithuania, which sees its half-century in the U.S.S.R. as an occupation, venerates its Soviet-era basketball stars.
The film eventually makes it to the Olympic finals, and here, too, director Megerdichev embellishes. There were almost no dunks in the real game, but in "Going Vertical," the U.S. team seems to be throwing down monster jams on every possession. One American's slam shatters a backboard as the Soviets look on in shock. ("I wanted to make it interesting for people who aren't basketball fans," the director said.)
The real game was a hard-fought battle that reflected Cold War-era passions, but the movie turns the U.S. men into a team full of Ivan Drago-like bruisers, and their coach, Missouri-born Henry Iba, is played by American actor John Savage as a demonic New Yorker who orders his guys to hurt the Reds.
Dramatic flourishes aside, the finale of the film plays out pretty much as it does in real life. The Americans think they've won, but the officials put time back on the clock. Then Yedeshko delivers a pristine full-court pass to Alexander Belov, who lays the ball in for the win. Red jubilation washes over the court.
But that's not the end of the movie. This is: The Soviet teammates, united in victory, hand over their envelopes of illicit victory cash to the coach, so his kid can get the operation. And that's the scene that the audience in my screening applauded.
And me? I went home in a huff and streamed the original Miracle on Ice game.
A previous version of this story contained a link to a 1981 film about the Miracle on Ice. The story has been updated to provide a link to the game that the reporter watched.