Sometimes the winds of fate collaborate to give a film an added layer of prescience. This is undoubtedly the case with Firebird, a true story of a gay romance behind the Iron Curtain. It is the 1970s, at the peak of the Cold War, and the Brezhnev Doctrine (a policy achingly similar to that of Putin’s) has a domineering hold on eastern Europe. Due to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, there will undoubtedly be increased attention paid to films with such a setting or similar ones. Tragedy as advertisement is a heavy topic warranting its own space, but there’s no denying the impact of real-world events on viewing habits.
Those looking for something rife with geopolitical issues might come away a little disappointed, though. Director Peeter Rebane’s film is a romance to its core, approaching the time and setting with a matter-of-factness that makes it secondary to the scandalous love story at the picture’s heart. While Russian accents are plentiful, and ample wall space is dedicated to Soviet propaganda and portraits of Lenin and Brezhnev, the film sometimes lacks the cultural specificity the audience could be yearning for.
Firebird follows Sergey (Tom Prior), a young private in the Soviet Air Force stationed at what looks to be a remote base in Estonia. His mandatory two-year conscription is nearly up, prompting a crisis of purpose in the young man, who has a passion for theater. When he meets the dashing and cultured Lieutenant Roman Matvejev (Oleg Zagorodnii), a young Mig-21 fighter pilot recently stationed at the base, his world is turned upside down.
“Roman and Sergey subsequently start a forbidden romance fraught with danger.”
Roman introduces Sergey to ballet, and it soon becomes evident that they are interested in each other much more than the ballet. Roman and Sergey subsequently start a forbidden romance fraught with danger. If caught, imprisonment is likely a guarantee because of the Soviet Union’s strict stance against homosexual activity and military policy against fraternization between officers and enlisted.
What follows is generally expected as the two men struggle to reconcile their relationship while pursuing their demanding careers and conflicting personal lives. Sergey ends up pursuing theater at a prestigious Moscow company. Roman continues his promising Air Force career, eventually scoring a Moscow tour that allows him to rekindle their relationship. Complicating matters is that Roman marries Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), a mutual friend unaware of their illicit past.
This is all competently executed, as Prior and Zagorodnii have impressive chemistry, and Rebane allows their performances to take center stage. Unfortunately, even though the two leads are a joy to watch, we can’t help but feel that we’ve seen what Firebird is offering before. There’s rarely a moment when the audience can’t forecast the next narrative beat, and this is where co-writers Ribane and Prior should have leaned into the unique setting a bit more. It feels as if the story of these two men could be transplanted into any other zeitgeist, and the results would be strikingly similar to countless other dramas.
An unavoidable poignancy comes to the fore because this is a true story based on Sergey Fetisov’s 1996 memoir, A Tale About Roman. That in itself is probably enough to warrant fans of this genre checking Firebird out. Still, the struggles of the LGBTQ+ populace in the former Soviet bloc and modern Russia are more aggressively examined in films like David France’s essential documentary Welcome to Chechnya. But those who need their fix of Cold War romance need look no further.
"…Prior and Zagorodnii have impressive chemistry..."