We Are The Champions – Basketball Film Wows Russians before Election

Putin listens to explanations from film director Nikita Mikhalkov at a shooting area of a movie outside St.Petersburg
Vladimir Putin (R) listens to explanations from film director Nikita Mikhalkov at a shooting area of the movie "Burnt by the Sun" Part Two in Shushary settlement outside St.Petersburg May 13, 2008. RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Sergei Subbotin/Pool/

By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters)

A Russian film about a Soviet Cold War sports victory over the United States has broken box office records months before a presidential election by borrowing a page from Vladimir Putin‘s play book: appealing to Russian patriotism

The film, “Going Vertical” in Russian or “Three Seconds” as it has been branded in English, mixes fact with a dose of artistic licence to tell the story of how the Soviet basketball team, in a major upset, controversially beat the U.S. national team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

After taking more than 2.2 billion roubles (¬£27.36 million) at the box office in just over three weeks, the film, financed by the state, has become the country’s most successful home grown production in rouble terms, watched by over 9 million people or approximately one in 12 registered voters.


Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov signs autographs as he arrives for opening of Moscow Film Festival
Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov signs autographs as he arrives for the opening of the Moscow Film Festival, Russia June 19, 2008. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin


During one packed Moscow showing this week, some audience members broke into spontaneous applause and others wiped tears from their eyes at decisive moments in the narrative.

The studio behind the film is controlled by Nikita Mikhalkov, an ardent Putin supporter and nationalist whose father wrote the lyrics for the Soviet national anthem under Stalin. One of the main roles, the Soviet team coach, is played by Vladimir Mashkov, who formally nominated Putin for re-election ahead of a March 18 ballot Putin is expected to coast.


Russian Director Mikhalkov gestures during opening ceremony of 37th International Film Festival in Moscow
Russian Director Nikita Mikhalkov gestures during the opening ceremony of the 37th International Film Festival in Moscow, Russia June 19, 2015. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin


The film has added piquancy because Russian sport is now mired in an international doping scandal that has seen its team banned from the forthcoming winter Olympics in South Korea, an act Moscow has cast as part of a U.S.-backed plot.

Russia, its economy growing modestly after a downturn, is also bracing for a new wave of U.S. sanctions over its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a charge it denies.


The Soviet Union won the 1972 Olympic match with a last gasp basket after a controversial decision to replay the last three seconds. The U.S. team refused to accept their silver medals, arguing they had been robbed of victory

The movie portrays the Soviets as plucky underdogs battling a lack of resources, scheming sports bureaucrats, and health problems. The U.S. team is cast as a bunch of arrogant rule breakers who resort to fouling to try to claw back the Soviet lead only to end up losing 51-50.



“Of course we’re in our own country, the film is Russian, we want our own guys to be (shown) a bit better,” the film’s director, Anton Megerdichev, told Reuters TV on Wednesday.

Widows of two of the Soviet sportspeople portrayed in the film – the coach and a star player – have complained it invents numerous episodes to pull on people’s heart strings, while a small minority of critics have condemned it as Soviet-style propaganda likely to boost burgeoning anti-Americanism.

“The film in actual fact doesn’t have anything to do with sport or basketball,” wrote Russian blogger Kirill Shulik. “It’s … an example of propaganda. Soviet style and Soviet victories are fashionable right now.”


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