The Soviet Union’s race to put the first man in space supplies a backdrop to the talky, symbol-laden period drama “Paper Soldier,” from Russian helmer Alexey German Jr. (“The Last Train,” “Garpastum). The antithesis of Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff,” it relegates fascinating glimpses of cosmonaut training to the background while foregrounding the intellectualizing and relationship problems of a medical officer charged with monitoring the men’s readiness. For most non-Russian auds, this stylized, emotionless approach will prove as hermetically sealed as the hyperbaric chamber in which prospective candidates are tested. Nevertheless, fest invites will likely accumulate.
During the six weeks prior to Vostock 1’s blast-off on April 12, 1961, broodingly handsome Dr. Daniel Pokrovsky (Merab Ninidze) appears increasingly conflicted about his role in sending a human on a potentially fatal mission. He leaves capable wife Nina (Chulpan Khamatova), a fellow doctor in his Moscow lab, and returns to the Cosmodrome in the flats of Kazakhstan, where he’s become involved with Vera (Anastasya Sheveleva).
From time to time, there are tantalizingly lensed glimpses of the actors playing Yuri Gagarin and his fellow pilots-in-training. The most striking show them swimming in a strange tank housed in a former church and rolling across the countryside inside a circus-like contraption.
Deliberately deglamorizing one of the Soviet Union’s points of pride, the script by German and Vladimir Arkusa is full of historical and literary allusions that aren’t particularly accessible to foreign viewers. With the three main characters coming off as labored constructs rather than humans, there’s little the thesps can do to give them life.
Pic’s more stirring aspects include the mesmerizing widescreen cinematography in a palette of steel gray and the expressive sound design.
The metaphorical title comes from a traditional song about a toy soldier who wanted to change the world but ended up in flames.