Air Crew

English Title: Air Crew

Original Title: Ekipazh

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Mosfilm

Director: Aleksandr Mitta

Screenplay: Iulii Dunskii, Valerii Frid, Aleksandr Mitta

Runtime: 144 minutes

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Leonid Filatov, Elena Koreneva, Ekaterina Vasil'eva, Georgii Zhzhenov, Aleksandra Iakoleva

Year: 1980

Volume: Russian

Andrei Vasil’evich, a reserved and laconic veteran of the skies, heads the crew of an international Aeroflot aircraft. Valentin, a helicopter pilot, has tried for several years to save his failing marriage. After a difficult divorce, he joins Andrei Vasil’evich’s flight crew. Igor, a flight engineer, is a sociable and carefree ladies man who becomes enamored with Tamara, a flight attendant. The second half of the film details what begins as a routine flight. The crew is to deliver emergency supplies to an unnamed country, suffering from the aftermath of an earthquake. Upon arrival, a tremor shakes the earth, damaging the runway. Despite unstable conditions the plane, filled with children, women and injured passengers miraculously takes off. However, it is discovered that the plane was damaged on takeoff, making it unlikely that the aircraft will reach its destination. Igor and Valentin are sent to the exterior of the plane to repair a crack in the body. After extreme turbulence, the flight successfully concludes, despite the loss of the plane's tail on landing. After the flight, Andrei Vasil’evich gets used to life on the ground as he is forbidden to fly due to his health. The personal strife that Valentin and Igor experienced in the first half of the film is resolved.

Although many films in the Soviet era were shown in two sections, Air Crew actually changes genres between Parts I and II. Alexander Mitta, previously known for low-key melodramas, possibly could not resist the slow and methodical drawing-out of the heroes’ personal lives in the first half, which is practically the length of a feature film. The result is that one feels as if two separate feature films are on display.

The first half is a quirky Soviet comedy drama, detailing the personal lives of the three main members of the crew who lead separate, although sparsely interconnected lives. Andrei Vasil’evich's health is declining and after returning from a flight, the first thing his wife does is check his blood pressure. His teenage daughter, now pregnant, causes him much grief, reminding him that soon he will stop flying and can raise a grandchild. Valentin is trying to save his marriage, but his wife is becoming more temperamental and unpredictable. She is clearly suffering from the double burden of raising the child and working, while Valentin is away flying helicopters on disaster missions. She starts suspecting him of having affairs during his extended absences and gains custody of their son after a bitter divorce battle, accusing him of being a drunk before the judge. Igor, an unabashed bachelor, seduces women with his exotic treasures, gathered in foreign lands. Citing the progressiveness of Soviet society, he does not believe in marriage. His attitude begins to change when he falls for Tamara, a stewardess. She tells him that contrary to what he believes, all women want to get married and have children, asking him why she needs the independence and modernity he seems to be championing for the opposite sex.

Whereas the first half of the film offers gripping snapshots of the private lives of Soviet pilots, the second part turns the film into an action-adventure epic. Upon landing in the city of Bidri, the damage is apparent. When a tremor rocks the land soon after arrival, explosions light up the sky. The men of the crew immediately demonstrate their courage and decide to take off, despite the dangerous conditions. A woman cries for the men to do something; Andrei Vasil’evich stoically declares: ‘We cannot take off, but we cannot stay.’

Andrei Vasil’evich quickly assumes the archetype of an older action hero, showing resolve and unflinching bravery in the midst of panic. Both Igor and Valentin also demonstrate masculine courage, daring to repair external damage to the aircraft despite the obvious risks. Their daring contrasts with images of frightened female passengers, hiding in blankets underneath the shadows. Upon landing, the women aboard the plane mob the captain, lavishing him with kisses and praise. The modest Andrei Vasil’evich calls his wife. Not wanting to worry her, he explains that poor weather had caused their delay.

Andrei Vasil’evich does not pass his next health test and takes his ‘grounding’ hard. Whereas Igor and Valentin were seemingly punished in the first half of their film for their apparent selfishness, now they are rewarded for their valour. Igor and Tamara get back together; she forgives him for his infidelity, being clearly overcome with respect for his bravery and resolve. The affable Valentin also finds love and is soon free from the tyrannical memory of his first wife.

While Air Crew was perhaps the most ambitious action-adventure film shot in the Soviet Union, the special effects are by today’s standards primitive and unconvincing. Many of the action scenes rely on decelerated or sped-up motion sequences, plus countless explosions, in order to disguise the inadequacy of a Soviet studio’s technical capabilities. While the action scenes remain improbable, the sub-plot of Soviet virility is entirely convincing. All of the men suffer bruised egos and this fated flight grants them an opportunity to permanently regain any machismo lost in the first half. Viewed as a two-part or double feature, however, Air Crew is a strange marriage of genres.   

Author of this review: Joe Crescente