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  • Warning: Spoilers
    This film was produced in 1984 at a time when the fates of Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner were unknown during a brutal period of terror and incarceration in the Soviet Union. With Jason Robards and Glenda Jackson in the roles of Sakharov and Bonner, the film offers an indelible portrait of the Soviet repression that lasted right up until the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985 as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

    The brutal conditions of a police state, the absence of civil liberties, and the courageous work of dissidents like Sakharov and Bonner are vividly presented in the film, as the repression of free speech and protests were continuing well into the 1980s. The film is especially successful in presenting the family solidarity and the terror unleashed by the State on the family members of Sakharov and Bonner.

    One of the most memorable scenes in the film is a conversation between Sakharov and the mother of Yelena Bonner. The mother had lived through the era of the "cult of personality," the purges, and the gulags of Joseph Stalin. She surprises her son-in-law by telling him that nothing has changed from the Stalinist era. In her words, the authorities are "not different, only smarter." The power elite has evolved to discover ways of stifling the human spirit that more subtle and efficacious. The film thus corrects the record of the "thaw" that was intended to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union and introduce reform.

    Beyond Sakharov and Bonner, there is a well-developed group of characters the represent the dissident movement. We watch the meetings and the daring acts of protest. There are appearances in court to observe show trials. There is the smuggling of manuscripts and evidence secretly dispatched out of the country. There are interviews with foreign journalists with the hope of support from foreign nations.

    One of the great ironies of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union is that the idealistic spirit and the yearning for freedom of the Sakharov community resemble that of the revolutionaries who started the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was clear from the very outset that Lenin and the Bolsheviks would not fulfill the goals of the Revolution. The promises were empty, and the autocratic rule of the tsar was replaced a nightmare in the dystopia that would last from 1917-91.

    The film ends with the incomplete story of Sakharov and Bonner as of 1984. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which the Soviet authorities would not allow him to accept in Stockholm. Bonner had to travel to Italy to have eye surgery, as the government would have ruined the career of the Moscow ophthalmologist who wanted to perform the operation. One of Bonner's grandchildren was poisoned to instill terror in the grandparents. With the exception of Sakharov and Bonner, the immediate family members all fled the country. The chilling note at the end indicates that both Sakharov and Bonner are in prison and engaged in hunger strikes in the year 1984.
  • A familiar episode to those who recall events within the Soviet Union during the final stages of the Cold War was a hunger strike undertaken by dissident Russian physicist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient (1975) Andrei Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner in 1984, as an attempt at compelling the U.S.S.R. government to allow Bonner's egress for the purpose of having critical surgery that could save her eyesight. The premiere of this film, completed during late 1983, was advanced three months for its debut showing on cable television, to harmonize with the drastic undertaking of the couple, although its first screening, intended to make widely known repressive practices by the U.S.S.R. to audiences of Western nations, was upon a Dutch television network. This work, then, becomes an eristic document of sorts that depicts a cause célèbre, with a script by David Rintels that precisely reproduces segments from Sakharov's recorded speeches, during a span when both he and his wife were codified as non-persons and exiled to Gorky, an embowered city that was off-limits to non-Russians and where they resided for the best part of two years. Rintels and others of the production team collected a great deal of information from Bonner's children as well as from their friends, associates, and Bonner's mother in addition to Western journalists who were assigned to Moscow, thereby serving to corroborate the publicly stated beliefs of Sakharov that were only strengthened after the Soviet state won the opening rounds of the ideological struggle between the Politburo and the physicist. Sakharov, of course, eventually K.O.ed his opposition from within the Soviet Union, his strength of will earning for him widespread global adulation owed mainly to his published writings that were circulated only through Samizdat, being additionally smuggled from the nation to be published abroad, where they were employed to obfuscate his earlier achievement as principal architect of the hydrogen bomb. He is ably impersonated in this piece by Jason Robards, with English actress Glenda Jackson scoring effectively as Bonner, while most others of the international cast play ably, although more creative exposition might have been added to a screenplay that requires a greater degree of clarity toward solving the puzzle of why Sakharov would make grievous sacrifices for what originally appeared to be merely visionary aims. When childless Sakharov is completely alone in the city of Moscow following the death of his first wife, played here by Anna Massey, he eagerly develops a relationship with Bonner and her children from her first marriage, thus intrinsically helping to solve the mystery of his seemingly quixotic behaviour, as he finally has a family around him, for the first time in his adult life, and his cardinal contribution towards the formulation of the hydrogen bomb that exacerbated the Cold war becomes for Sakharov an achievement for which he must expect to do penance. Additionally, his distaste for the death penalty in effect at the time, and his scorn for the tussle between the U.S.S.R. and the United States to realize nuclear superiority, made it possible for him to quite completely shrug off cautionary advice given by the State prosecutor, this warning reproduced in the script verbatim from his writings that, when conjoined to his participation in anti-government protests, could bring him naught but ill fortune. Despite the omnipresence of the dreaded KGB, the film portrays the Nobel Peace Prize winner and his companions outwitting the secret police for a short while; however, as Bonner's mother states: the Communist leaders of the day are no different from those in authority during the time of Stalin, "only smarter". Copies of the proscribed Sakharov writings continue to be circulated outside of Russia, their popularity due in large part to his simple and direct prose style, his ideals moving him, through Robards, to claim from frustration that KGB efficacy seems to be exponential "and then one is completely in the dark in a hopeless blind alley". The film chronicles events from the later years of Sakharov's life, during which he was accused by the Politburo of crimes against the State, and is accordingly after being a true story, yet the production's aim of extolling his merits, intended to help in persuading the U.S.S.R. to release him and his wife from their internal exile, makes of the work a form of polemic. As a consequence, a temptation to paint differing ideological factions without shades of gray is very strong. The film was produced, utilizing separate endemic crews, in Austria and in England, and offers those above standard characteristics that can only be attained through a substantial budget.