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Go / No Go :
"The Red Stuff" DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   White Star Video
Release:   2003
Length:   100 minutes
MSRP:   $19.95
Extras:   "Starman," a biography of Yuri Gagarin

They were the ultimate bad guys, the very personification of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union kept its cosmonauts corps mysterious, unknown to the outside world. Only after the success of each mission was each man - and woman - hailed as a hero of the communist way of life. Even then, they were the enemy. For years, the Soviets handed the U.S. loss after loss in the space race.

And had it not been for those losses, had it not been for the former cosmonauts interviewed in The Red Stuff like Gherman Titov, Pavel Popovich, Alexi Leonov and more, the U.S. would have never made it to the Moon. Never.

Stuff is by far the most in-depth look at the Soviet space program ever put to film. The program is interesting, if for no other reason than it adds faces, voices and, more importantly, stories to the names we've heard for so long.

It's interesting to note how similar these men are to their American astronaut counterparts. Not only was there a fierce competition between countries to be first in space, there was an extremely heated battle between the pilots of those countries to be first in everything.

When Titov bristles over reports he was happy that Yuri Gagarin was going to be first in space, you believe him. It's exactly how Gus Grissom, John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury corps must have felt about Alan Shepard.

Titov gives a first-hand account of his backup duties to the first manned spaceflight made by his comrade, Yuri Gagarin. It's in this segment that it's made clear that the cosmonauts had much in common with their American brethren... competition for the first flight was fierce, not only between countries, but between each corps of pilots.

There is rare footage of Gagarin boarding Vostok-1 and its launch, with Titov explaining the process... he took a nap as the countdown wore on.

Leonov talks of his historic spacewalk. Later, Konstantin Feoktistov tells of the decision to cram three men into a spacecraft, and the overwhelming sentiment against the move.

Feoktistov also discusses the loss of Vladimir Komarov, and there is footage of the crash site and his funeral. The next chapter features footage of three cosmonauts... who would lose their lives on re-entry.

There is a scene of their capsule falling to Earth, empty of life, with, presumably, one of the widows reading her memories of the horrible day. It's unbelievable, but what appear to be images of the attempts to revive the lifeless bodies - their faces in plain view - are included.

So, there are segments in Stuff that you have never seen before... and some things you might not want to see.

For all its strengths, there are a few weaknesses. There is not one word of English spoken in Stuff. The whole film is subtitled. It is a little disconcerting at first, but like any foreign film, you ultimately adapt and the subtitles merge into the video.

The film also lacks narration, which is perhaps The Red Stuff's largest issue. Titov's wife is interviewed, but her name is never mentioned. Sergei Korolev (Korolyov), the Soviet Union's mysterious Chief Designer is discussed in great detail. But his first name is never given, and his role is never fully detailed. His daughter is interviewed, but her name is never revealed. The Soyuz 11 cosmonauts who perished - Patsayev, Dobrovolski and Volkov - are shown but unidentified as well.

Extras: Starman might very well have been the main feature of this release. Like Stuff, it's the first real video on a topic rarely discussed (in the West): Yuri Gagarin.

Starman take us to Gagarin's birthplace, accompanied by English narration, where his brother and sister describe their childhood during World War II. From there, it covers his military training and selection as a cosmonaut. Where Stuff fails to provide background and even the most basic of information, Starman gives just that and more.

For example, when the returning space hero received his red carpet welcome home from Khruschev, Gagarin's shoes were untied.

His post-flight struggles are also detailed. He once made a drunken pass at a hotel maid, and then fell out of a second-story window.

You come away from the 50-minute program knowing Gagarin better than you have. You come away with the sense that, as mentioned in the opening of the program, he was a man who struggled with being the first man in space, with being the symbol of a country.

Go/No Go: Go, for the historical value of The Red Stuff and quite possibly even more for Starman. The story of the Mercury astronauts has been told ad infinitum. Now, for possibly the first time, meet their competitors.

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About the reviewer:
Rick Houston is an avid collector of DVDs (he has more than 600). Houston is also a space history enthusiast, so he is sure to not miss a documentary or docudrama.

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