Though flawed when viewed with critical eyes, Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy (2008) is a fascinating documentary contending that the Cold War cosmonaut hailed as the first man in space actually wasn't - that his mission was thrown together at the last minute on the heels of a catastrophic failure days before, and further suggests Gagarin didn't die in a 1968 jet crash but murdered by the KGB when he became a liability in a post-Khrushchev Soviet Union.
Though reportedly shot and mastered in 1080i/24 frames-per-second high-definition, we received what's billed as a "special 90-minute 'pre-release' DVD" and thus have no idea what to expect of the final product. The DVD this reviewer watched was unenhanced 4:3 matted to 1.78:1 and rife with combing issues, but presumably the final product will be up to professional standards.
Though officially the first human being in outer space and the first to orbit the earth - several weeks prior to American astronaut Alan Shepard's Project Mercury flight - cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was living a Soviet-engineered fabrication, according to the documentary. The filmmakers contend that five days before Gagarin's April 12, 1961 flight, another cosmonaut, Vladimir Ilyushin, was launched into space but after three orbits the mission went awry and Ilyushin was severely injured in a crash landing in mainland China where he was held, possibly as a prisoner, for many months, though the Soviets claimed he was there for treatments related to an auto accident.
The evidence presented in the film is pretty compelling, noting Ilyushin's status as an experienced, record-setting and much-decorated test pilot (and son of renowned airplane designer Sergey Ilyushin) compared to handsome but inexperienced Gagarin, who was never a test pilot and had only 75 or so hours flying time in the Soviet Air Force. The film also cites official Soviet reports on Ilyushin's whereabouts, which change from day-to-day, and the suspicions of foreign correspondents such as the London-based Daily Worker's Moscow correspondent David Ogden, who was interviewed for this documentary shortly before his death.
The latter-half of the documentary follows Gagarin's alleged decline, suggesting guilt about the lie he was living led to alcoholism, womanizing, and other unpredictable behavior that was contrary to the clean-cut image the Soviet Union wanted to project. Further, he was highly critical of the flawed Soviet space program under Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, climaxing with the tragic death of intimate friend Vladimir Komarov aboard the ill-fated Soyuz I, for which Gagarin had been its back-up pilot.
Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy makes for fascinating viewing, but is it credible? Maybe. Who knows? The filmmakers were able to meet with the still-living Ilyushin, who to date has not confirmed any of these accusations, but he's not one of the on-camera interviewees. (Perhaps not coincidentally, he also led the investigation into Garagin's supposedly plane crash death.) The filmmakers also were in contact with a tracking station engineer stationed on Tern Island in the Pacific, part of a group of personnel who reportedly monitored both the Ilyushin and Gagarin flights. However, the filmmakers state that when, under the Freedom of Information Act, they requested these tracking documents they were flatly rejected as their release would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security" and that the engineer was threatened with jail time if he sat for an on-camera interview.
Instead, the show relies on just six interviewees: Ogden; Gordon Feller, a Soviet era historian; Col. Yuri Lyzlov, a member of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces from 1960-86; Dr. Richard Sturdevant, senior historian at the USAF Space Command HQ; Racheal Seymour, a CIA political analyst from 1991-95; and Vladimir Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet Premier. Their statements are often persuasive, but not conclusive.
Hollywood actor Elliott Gould acts as on-camera narrator, but the filmmakers use him rather strangely, positing him as an authority on the subject of space program conspiracies because he played an investigative reporter in Capricorn One (1978), the enjoyable but still pretty goofy popcorn movie about a faked NASA mission to Mars. In linking Gould's movie credit to the film's subject matter, Fallen Idol undercuts its own aims to be taken seriously.
Conspiracy stories about faked space missions - including accusations that NASA's Apollo moon landings were also faked a la Capricorn One - have been rife for decades, but the evidence presented in Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy at least on the surface appears level-headed, reasonable, and in part supported by primary evidence and first-hand accounts. I'm still skeptical - in the dictionary sense of withholding judgment - but the film on some levels is persuasive. As a movie, this is Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is due in stores this June, and on sale now.