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Review: 'Firebird' a Gay Military Drama with a Great Cast, No Surprises

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Sep 14, 2021
'Firebird'
'Firebird'  (Source:Frameline45)

Director Peeter Rebane's "Firebird" is a tale of forbidden love behind the Iron Curtain of Soviet-occupied Estonia in the 1970s and '80s.

Sergey (co-writer and producer Tom Prior) is a closeted private serving his last few weeks at an air force base, making the best of his time as a conscript by getting up to innocent hijinks (midnight swims, for instance) with his friends Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson) and Luisa (Diana Pozhorskaya). Life isn't so bad - at least, not when it isn't being made miserable by a sadistic sergeant; the hard-edged martial nature of the assignment, complete with jets, drills, and the occasional red alert is softened somewhat by Sergey's hobby of photography: He enjoys composing pictures of such things as flowers and men's subtle smiles. It might help him, too, that the base commander (Nicholas Woodeson) has taken a liking to Sergey, expressly inviting him to remain in the service at the end of his required time in uniform.

Sergey intends to decline that offer and return to his family's farm, but then a new fighter pilot arrives - a lieutenant named Roman (Oleg Zagoronii). Like Serge, Roman has an interest in photography and the two quickly form a friendship... one that begins to move toward romance as they linger over tays of developer in Roman's makeshift darkroom.

Still, Sergey plans to leave when his time is up. Besides, the base's KGB officer, Major Zverev (Margus Prangel), has suspicions about the two of them, and it's an effort for the new lovers to stay one step ahead of him.

The film isn't the gay "Top Gun" that the 2013 Navy fighter pilot romance "Burning Blue" was (or that "Top Gun" itself was, for that matter); it takes a longer view as Sergey and Roman's lives exert a continual pull on each other, even after Sergey (with Roman's encouragement) applies to, and is accepted by, a school of drama in Moscow. None of the story beats come as a surprise, and we've been down this "love that dare not speak its name" path too many times not to recite its required elements.

Still, the film is compelling, in part due to the direction and the performances, and partly due to it being "based on a true story." To appreciate where we are today, it's necessary to take a look back sometimes; even in free countries, LGTBQ people have faced the same sorts of social and legal prejudice that we see Sergey and Roman contend with in this period piece. That said, and given the way Russia clamped down on so-called "homosexual propaganda" (basically, anything other than staying in the closet) only ten years after abolishing its draconian anti-gay laws, such a look back is more than a way of measuring our progress; it's a reminder of how the future can more closely resemble the bad old days than the current moment unless we remain visible and vigilant.


"Firebird" screens at Reeling Film Festival (Chicago) and Out On Film Atlanta

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


Reeling 2021

This story is part of our special report titled "Reeling 2021." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


Out On Film 2021

This story is part of our special report titled "Out On Film 2021." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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