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History can be made in seconds – Review: Going Vertical

The figures may not be huge compared to the biggest blockbuster movies, but Going Vertical (also released under the title Three Seconds), is the highest-grossing Russian film ever, with worldwide box office returns of over $60m.

It tells the true – but dramatised – story of the Soviet Union’s improbable victory over deadly rivals (and dead-cert favourites) the USA in the final of the men’s basketball competition at the 1972 Olympic Games.

Everything that happened at that summer Olympiad in Munich tends to be overshadowed by the terrorist attack on the Israeli team, and the USSR’s triumph over the Americans feels largely forgotten, partly because of controversy over the result which saw the US make an official protest.

So Going Vertical can be recommended on the basis that it shines new light on an important moment in sport, and the film successfully recalls the unlikely Soviet win in a way which excites and moves the audience.

The script is based on the memoir by Soviet basketball legend Sergei Belov, and the film’s alternative title refers to the last three seconds of that famous game in Munich. Director Anton Megerdiche uses a long shot in the movie to reproduce the moment in which Ivan Edeshko heaves a pass up the court for team-mate Aleksandr Belov to score and make it 51-50 to the USSR.

The director controls the pace smartly and delivers a steady stream of conflict to increase the tension, even though the final outcome is already known. It has the hallmarks of a solidly commercial movie whilst, as a film about sport, evoking the team spirit and fierce passions involved in a classic underdog victory tale.

“The USA basketball team will be defeated by another team sooner or later, I hope it will be us.”

“The USA basketball team will be defeated by another team sooner or later, I hope it will be us,” says head coach Vladimir Garanzhin (Vladimir Mashov) who, in real life, predicted the Soviet victory, much to the consternation of Russian officials who believed his bold statement risked ridicule for their nation at the height of the Cold War.

The movie portrays Garanzhin’s battles with the pressure and threats from his politically-motivated bosses as he strives to give his players 100 per cent trust and support.

Garanzhin goes the extra mile for his team, finding contact lenses for talented but myopic player Alzhan Zharmukhamedov (Aleksandr Ryapolov) and spending money he has set aside to pay for operation his son needs to fund medical treatment for Belov in the United States.

He even gives Lithuanian-born team captain Modestas Paulauskas (James Tratas) the chance to escape from the clutches of the Communist regime.

Garanzhin’s human touch, not to mention his coaching skills, enables him to forge an indomitable team spirit that ultimately leads to triumph over an all-conquering USA line-up packed with NBA stars.

Away from the basketball court, the film touches on the lack of reward for the players, showing them smuggling items such as radios, leather jackets and even knitting wool when they return home to the Soviet Union.

Such details aim to reflect the harsh realities of life for many people in the USSR during the Cold War era, but ultimately this is a movie about one of the biggest sporting upsets of all time. Until that final in Munich, the USA had not been beaten in basketball at the Olympics for 36 years.

The meticulousness of the director can be seen throughout. He chooses not to gloss over those hardships so the film could resonate with the audiences, especially in Russia – hence its favourable critical reception at home and domestic box office success.

Of course, sport is war minus the shooting, as George Orwell put it, and Russia’s victory only added to the tensions between the two super powers. Garanzhin’s aim of defeating the USA becomes a political goal rather than simply a sporting one, and government officials warn his son will not be permitted to seek treatment overseas if the USSR’s reputation is damaged.

So high were the stakes that the USA team actually refused to accept their silver medals after claiming those crucial final three seconds of the gold medal game has been added erroneously.

No American distributor thought that Going Vertical was worth screening in the States. It did reasonably well in China, and was sold to a few other countries, but buying the DVD via Amazon is now the only way to access the movie.

It should be noted that Going Vertical has been criticised and was even the subject of legal action in Russia for playing fast and loose with the facts.

For example, Paulauskas never tried to leave the Soviet Union, Belov did not have heart disease when the team made the history, and it is also claimed the head coach was not trying to secure surgery for his son outside of the USSR.

Nonetheless, for any sports fan who loves a film about unfancied teams overcoming the odds to triumph, Going Vertical is worth seeking out.