The War for Ukraine: What Movies Could We See? Since the founding of the medium, film has gone hand-in-hand with war.
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In both World War I and World War II, the global cinematic industry rapidly shifted to wartime production, with nearly every major participant churning out many films about the course of the war and its future.
None of this should be surprising; war, even at its most terrible, enables contemplation, introspection, heroism, villainy, and spectacular scenes of chaos and destruction.
Historically, film has also set the terms, for better or worse, of how we interpret particular wars or particular battles.
It is impossible, for example, to understand the cultural impact of the Vietnam War in the United States without careful study of the cinema inspired by that conflict.
With this in mind, let’s think for a bit about what kind of cinema the war in Ukraine could inspire. Here are thoughts on five films that we might see in the wake of the conflict:
Battle for Kyiv
From the brink of the war until the failure of Russia’s offensive against Kyiv, the fate of Ukraine hung in the balance.
The critical period lasted for around two weeks, at which point it became apparent that the Russia attack had stalled. A Ukrainian counter-offensive then liberated territory taken around the capital city, not coincidentally uncovering the massacre of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians at Bucha.
In short, the offensive set the conditions under which the rest of the war would be fought, and involved heroism, high tension, and depraved villainy.
This is high drama, and there is no question that ambitious efforts will be undertaken to put it on the screen. Films that have covered a short campaign like this include Thirteen Days, A Bridge Too Far, and The Longest Day.
The Snake Island Campaign
The struggle for Snake Island lasted from February 24, when Russian naval forces seized the island, until the Russian retreat on June 30.
Strategically situated near the Danube Delta, the island was rapidly commanded the attention of both sides. One of the most symbolic moments of the war came when the Russian cruiser Moskva demanded the surrender of the island, only to receive a response that Ukrainian propaganda rapidly immortalized.
The sinking of the Moskva in mid-April is also one of the most iconic moments of the conflict.
Although the story lasts for longer than a few weeks and involves lots of moving parts, movies that focus on a bounded campaign can succeed even if their purview requires an extended time-line. In Harms Way effectively covered the first year of the Pacific War (terrain that the more recent Midway also covered to less satisfactory extent), and Battle of Britain remains the definitive account of the several months of most intensive air combat between Germany and Great Britain.
Ghost of Kyiv
War is said to be hell, so why not go full horror, at least as far as the Russians are concerned?
The mythical Ghost of Kyiv was said to have been a MiG-29 pilot who won numerous victories over Kyiv in the first days of the war. The Ukrainian government later admitted that it had facilitated the myth, to no one’s great surprise. The Ghost became a symbol of Ukraine’s unexpectedly effective resistance to the Russian air campaign. A fictionalized account might imply that the Ghost wasn’t so mythical after all.
A detour into magical realism wouldn’t be a first for the war film genre; Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell brought magic to the Napoleonic Wars, Pan’s Labyrinth to the Spanish Civil War, and even Wonder Woman to the First World War.
Putin’s Inner Circle
We will probably never get a full account of Russian decision-making at critical points of the war. Nevertheless, the idea of a film that applies the Downfall treatment to the machinations of Putin’s inner circle would undoubtedly be fascinating.
Of course, Downfall was a better film because its producers had access to documentation of the last moments of Hitler in 2004 than they would have had in 1946. It may take some time for even a hazy understanding of Putin’s decision-making and of the infighting in the Kremlin to emerge.
The Death of Stalin and Children of the Revolution have covered similar terrain with respect to one of Putin’s predecessors, albeit with some variation in tone.
Among the most challenging films that might emerge after this war will be a biopic of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelensky is a difficult figure from a literary point of view because of his elusiveness; a comedian, dramatic and comedic actor, and politician does not make it easy to find the “authentic” Zelensky. Given the immensity of his importance to the war, filmmakers would struggle to decide what to include, not to mention who to cast in the central role. It would also be difficult to avoid hagiography. Depictions chronicling figures such as John Kennedy and Winston Churchill have consistently struggled to describe more troubling aspects of their records.
Still, films such as Lincoln and Darkest Hour offer a template of how to approach telling the story of a consequential world leader.
Telling the story of a still-living political figure can be more of a struggle, but films like W. or The Queen have certainly succeeded on their own terms.
Ukraine Coming to the Silver Screen?
The stakes here sound trivial compared to the actual fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine. We need to appreciate, however, that the way we (the United States, Ukraine, Russia, and every other country involved) will remember this war depends to great extent on the narratives that it generates. Cinema (and by this we mean both film and television) will make the war intelligible to the public, and will provide a foundation for interpretation of the conflict for decades to come. Shaping this narrative will certainly not escape the attention of the Russian and Ukrainian governments.
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A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.
February 2, 2023 at 11:55 am
MR. Farley, undoubtedly Film Moguls will profit off Films made about this War. I hope the profits will go to rebuilding Ukraine and compensating the victims of Putin’s Terrorist Campaign against them.