Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom


Ukrainian police fire on unarmed protesters.

Ukrainian police fire on unarmed protesters.

(2015) Documentary (Netflix) Ekaterina Averchenko, Mustafa Ayyem, Maksim Panov, Eduard Kurganskiy, Diana Popova, Aleksandr Staradub, Ivan Sydor, Timur Ibraimov, Cissy Jones (narrator), Kamiliya Zahoor, Said Ismagilov, Vladimir Makarevich, Sergei Kibnuuski, Volodymyr Parasyuk, Aleksandr Pyovanov, Oleksandr Melnyk, Catherine Ashton. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

A wise man once said that while it is easy to see when a revolution ends, it is much more difficult to discern when it begins. That wasn’t the case with the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, also called the EuroMaidan revolution or just the Maidan revolution. named for Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square in central Kiev (the Ukrainian capital) which was the staging ground for most of the events of the uprising. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, this revolution was televised.

After then-president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the trade agreement with the European Union that he had promised to sign, journalist Mustafa Ayyem and others sent out messages on Facebook and other social media to gather in Maidan to protest. At first only a few dozen showed, but by the end of the evening there were thousands in the square.

The protesters would remain in Maidan for 93 days amid escalating retaliation from the State Police, or Berkut. went from beatings with truncheons, stun grenades and arrests for disorderly conduct to firing into the crowd with rubber bullets and eventually with live ammo. Backed by convicts and thugs paid by the government called titushky the pro-government forces clashed more and more violently with the anti-government forces which were now calling for Yanukovych to resign, culminating in five days in February which large-scale rioting took place and police brutality rose to sadistic levels.

International outcry was deafening as even the International Monetary Fund suspended activities within the Ukraine due to the unrest. Yanukovych finally resigned and fled the country for Russia, with whom he had been in secret negotiations. His government was toppled and new elections held. As the documentary itself notes, that didn’t end the violence however; Russia would annex the Crimean peninsula and pro-Russian activists in the Eastern Ukraine erupted in a civil war that continues to this day. More than six thousand Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict.

Russian/Israeli docu-journalist Afineevsky was on the ground in the Ukraine for the duration of the uprising and documented it as thoroughly as it can be – 28 cameramen and women were credited on the film and some of the footage appears to have been captured on cell phone cameras as well. The footage is quite frankly amazing; we see hordes of police descending on unarmed protesters and beating the holy crap out of them. We see people shot and literally die in front of our eyes.

What the film doesn’t do is provide any balance. There were incidents of violence involving protesters but these are never shown; we are given a political line here which I don’t think that the filmmakers realized would have been made stronger if we had heard some opposing voices as well. While I’m not trying to say that justification for the violence and brutality should have been provided, one gets the feeling that we’re hearing only one side of the story which makes it maddeningly incomplete.

Still, in presenting that single side the filmmakers are commendably thorough. Graphics illustrate the locations of the various clashes and show the routes of protest marches. The filmmakers also resist the urge that many documentaries in the last few years have followed in padding their films with animated sequences. Every image we see here other than the informational graphics is either live footage of the uprising or interviews with the participants after the fact.

The Ukraine is, surprisingly, one of the most multi-cultural nations on earth with a variety of religions and ethnic groups that live there (there’s a particularly large Muslin/Arabic ethnic population living in Kiev) and religious leaders played a major role in the protest. Time and time again throughout the film the anti-government activists boast that all of the various religions were united as one; we get that this wasn’t a religious conflict but a political one.

There are still some pro-Russian sorts who call this uprising a coup d’état rather than a true popular uprising (only about 40% of Ukrainians supported the protesters according to contemporary polls). However, there is no doubt that Yanukovych was entirely corrupt as was his administration and once he began ordering his police to fire on his own people with live ammunition he lost what little moral authority he might have had to begin with.

If this is a propaganda piece as it strongly feels like it is, it is an entirely effective one. There is no doubting the courage of the protesters standing up to armed and armored police officers while completely unarmed, an eerie foreshadowing of police militarization in our own country which thankfully hasn’t led to the kind of violence that we saw in Kiev. 75 people died during the uprising, mostly protesters. Yanukovych is now wanted internationally in connection with the police actions and for allegedly having looted more than $75 billion from the Ukrainian treasury.

Watching the images of the beatings and the shootings is absolutely heartbreaking at times – but inspiring throughout. I’m half-Ukrainian so I do have a bit of a dog in this hunt and I have to say that I have never been prouder of my heritage than I was during the extraordinary events of these 93 days in the winter of 2013-14. While the story is far from being over, it is a story that is worth telling. I just wish they’d told both sides of it.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible footage. Thorough presentation of the anti-Yanukovych point of view. Easy to follow and understand.
REASONS TO STAY: Extremely one-sided point of view.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, profanity and some disturbing images of injuries and corpses.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gujarat, the Indian state that Vasant and Champa Patel were from, also was the home state of Gandhi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Square
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: 99 Homes

State of Play


State of Play

Russell Crowe sheepishly discovers that this isn't casual Friday, as Helen Mirren scolds him.

(Universal) Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

One of the casualties of the Information Age is the newspaper. Once the prime source of information for nearly everybody, it was done in first by the television newscast and finally, by the Internet which could deliver news instantaneously, rather than by the next morning. Oh, the daily newspapers are still around, but their circulation is dwindling, ad revenue shrinking and their role changing from government watchdogs to gossip-mongering rags that are rapidly losing their relevance.

Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is a bit of a dinosaur in that regard. A reporter for the Washington Globe, he is familiar with the intricacies of the federal government and has sources in nearly every office building from the Capital to the D.C. police department. Scruffy and disheveled, he is a man who cares more about the truth than is perhaps fashionable.

He is called to the scenes of what appear to be disparate deaths – a young African American career criminal shot to death in an alleyway (with an unfortunate bicyclist also gunned down for being in the wrong place at the worst time) and a young Congressional assistant who threw herself under a Metro subway train.

The nagging question was whether she fell or was she pushed. Further complicating things is that she worked for Representative Steven Collins (Affleck), McAffrey’s old college roommate who is married to McAffrey’s college lover, Anne (Penn). Collins is a bright light in his party, a possible presidential candidate in the making. He is heading a Congressional investigation into a company called PointCorp, whose service is similar to what Blackwater provides in real life. His assistant was spearheading the research into PointCorp which makes the timing of her demise even more suspicious, but this is overlooked when it is revealed – by the tearful Collins himself – that the congressman was having an affair with his assistant.

This is the kind of juicy scandal that the news media lives for these days and the Globe’s matriarchal editor-in-chief Cameron Lynne (Mirren) wants to leap onto the more salacious aspects of the story. McAffrey, however, sees something more sinister at work and starts to dig deeper and quickly discovers a link between the alleyway murder and the death of the assistant – the victim was carrying a PointCorp briefcase at the time of his murder.

With McAffrey’s objectivity in question, Lynne assigns political blogger Della Frye (McAdams) to the story. McAffrey regards her in probably the same way the Neanderthal regarded Homo sapiens. Still, the further the two of them dig, the bigger the body count becomes. Now, not only are they racing against the clock to get the story, they must find a way to stay alive before it’s published.

Director Kevin Macdonald is developing quite the resume with The Last King of Scotland, Kindertransport and One Day in September to his credit. Here he is given a script that reduces a six hour BBC miniseries on which this movie is based into 127 minutes. That’s a lot of condensing, but it works out very nicely. Macdonald keeps the strings taut and the tension high throughout the movie, interspacing it with shocking acts of violence (the opening sequence depicting the alleyway murders and the subway murder are masterfully done).

Russell Crowe, when given the right material, is ridiculously good, and this is his best role in years. He plays McAffrey with a combination of bulldog determination, a somewhat naïve regard for the truth and a weary cynicism that makes him realistic to most of the print journalists I’ve ever met. His byplay with Mirren are among the movies highlights.

Affleck, once a promising leading man in Hollywood before poor script choices derailed his career, has settled in nicely as a terrific support actor. Here he plays the crusading politician with the right amount of grit tempered with vulnerability. He never overshadows Crowe, but compliments him instead, and makes you wish you could have voted for his character.

The big problem with this movie is its ending. Quite frankly, up until the last 20 minutes of the movie, this is a superb film; then, the wheels come off. The ending is frankly unbelievable and makes you tear your hair out and shout at the screen “Oh come on, do you think we’re STUPID?!” I was quite flabbergasted because everything about this movie was well thought out, brilliantly conceived and superbly planned up until then. It’s the kind of thing that breaks a movie lover’s heart.

The movie does strike an elegiac chord for the daily newspaper; throughout the movie, Mirren’s character laments that nobody reads them anymore and complains about how the new corporate publishers are pushing for lighter, fluffier fare and a colorful, dumbed-down graphics-heavy look of the kind more and more newspapers are adopting in an effort to stave off the desertion of their subscribers. I don’t know how long daily newspapers can last in the current environment; they will probably always exist in an online format, but some of the great newspapers of this land are barely hanging on and whether or not they can survive in the coming years is very much in doubt.

Still, the newspaper-set movie is an exciting one; it yields up images of truth seeking journalists like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men or the snappy repartee of Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in His Girl Friday. Perhaps those sorts of movies (and others like Absence of Malice and The Paper) are also destined to become archaic relics of a bygone era; all I know is that a movie set at a newspaper is bound to be more dynamic and exciting than one set at an online blog.

WHY RENT THIS: One of Crowe’s best performances in years. This is a very smart thriller with some wonderfully shot sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is just plain godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some bad language, some sexuality and some drug references. That’s a lot of “somes” but no “lotses,” so you should feel okay letting most teens see this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McAffrey’s cubicle contains a partially-hidden picture of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporters from the Washington Post. Woodward later makes a cameo appearance at Anne Collins’ press conference.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the Blu-Ray edition, the U-Control feature’s “Washington DC Locations” feature allows you to see on-screen text and Google Earth graphics to show the government buildings and street locations where the scenes take place (and were frequently shot).

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: A Good Year