Patience and endurance. According to a character in director Marian Bushan’s (Lucescu Phenomenon) Sniper: The White Raven, what separates snipers from soldiers is patience and endurance. Snipers don’t rush, they don’t preen, and they don’t attack unless the shot is available. This is antithetical to much of what Americans ingest in their cinema and television when it comes to the military as their heroes are often brash, violent, and unwilling to follow the rules. As depicted in American films, a sniper is the one soldier you want on your side (Shooter (2007)) or creates the largest obstacle to your survival (Saving Private Ryan (1998); Full Metal Jacket (1987)). Eschewing the expected machismo, Bushan’s Sniper: The White Raven finds itself focused less on the carnage of war and more on the transformation required to go from average citizen to warrior.
In 2014, mathematician, physicist, and ecologist Mykola Voronenko (Pavlo Aldoshyn) and his wife Nastya (Maryna Koshkina) live on a two-acre parcel of land as eco-settlers, attempting to reduce their ecological footprint while preparing to welcome the birth of their child. While Mykola is gone to teach high schoolers, Nastya is mistaken for a rebel soldier by invading Russian forces and is murdered. Though the two lived a peaceful lifestyle, the tragic loss of his wife spurns Mykola to join with Ukrainian forces where he ultimately trains to become a sniper. Once cleared for training, he adopts a codename inspired by the stories of his wife’s family. He becomes: Raven.
Considering the current war in Ukraine, set in motion by Russian president Vladimir Putin, it’s worth noting that this specific conflict dates back to February 2014 after a period of revolution known as the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity when pro-Russia forces invaded Crimea and Donbas. So while it may be easy to separate today’s war from the past, the events which inspired this story are as much a part of the Russo-Ukrainian War as the actions of today. One of the strengths of Bushan’s direction and the script by he and the real Mykola Voronin is how it draws a direct line between the losses of nearly 10 years ago to now. The script also makes it clear that tensions were already at a boil before violence ever touched in-film Mykola’s life, making the shift into a wartime drama a true shock for the character, even if not for the audience. There’s a gentle touch with the narrative up to the point of Mykola’s emotional and philosophical transformation so that the audience can see how he and his wife were able to exist outside of sphere of violence for so long in a way that doesn’t make them eccentric or absurd. Bushan also presents life pre-tragedy with a certain simplicity that almost feels like a documentary, capturing moments between the characters and presenting the environment, specifically nature, as directly connected. Having not seen Bushan’s first film, Lucescu Phenomenon, I am unsurprised that it’s a documentary, as The White Raven clearly displays a penchant for letting a scene breathe, apt for a film about a sniper.
Where audiences are likely to struggle in a film like The White Raven is that there’s such a focus on thoughtfulness, to show moments of contemplation, and to get Mykola to the point in his military history that he’s known now, that some moments feel rushed or “too cinematic” for their own good. It’s an issue that gets compounded by the fact that it’s also simultaneously so insular and focused on Mykola that there’s very little weight given to the gains and losses he experiences once in the military. For instance, it makes sense that someone with three scientific specialties and no military background would struggle with basic training. We’re shown Mykola, specifically, having difficulty dismantling and rebuilding his firearm, a task that seems to be the bare minimum for his fellow recruits. He manages to learn how, even to do it blindfolded, something which demonstrates his personal resilience and determination, but why does this mean he qualifies for sniper school? When at sniper school, his skills with mathematics and physics are quite clear, but he rarely displays skills that present him as noteworthy. It’s as though the film wants Mykola to be seen as the always underdog *and* be given the accolades for talent. It’s odd given that the other recruits in sniper training are presented as better, more consistent shots. Issues like this carry forward as a moment of weakness on Mykola’s part leads to another tragedy, yet we never see that explored on-screen. Instead, we’re jumped in time four years and Mykola is now the go-to sniper for Ukraine. Especially as performed by Aldoshyn, the audience believes in Mykola’s skills, but we’re almost always *told* he has them before we see him having them. If The White Raven is intended to tell Voronin’s real story, then the script should spend the time showing how he grew his abilities and developing relationships with his fellows.
This latter issue is particularly important because, other than the first time we see Mykola in the field, there’s no reason for the audience to have a better sense of Mykola’s teammates given the recurring faces. Unit cohesion is important for each of their missions, yet we have no sense of who they all are, their strengths, weaknesses, or how they function as a whole. It’d be like watching Top Gun (1986) and not knowing anything about Ice Man (Val Kilmer), Viper (Tom Skerritt), or Jester (Michael Ironside). The White Raven seems intent on keeping Mykola’s story isolated to himself and, in doing so, fails to bring the audience in, too. It certainly doesn’t help when elements of the narrative which trigger Mykola into emotional backsteps feel like they’re created for cinematic purposes versus any logical sense. Just because a moment was formative for Mykola doesn’t mean it was for anyone else, and playing it as though it is clearly is intended to amplify the moment, saturating it with inauthenticity.
While there is a sense of confusion as to how Mykola goes from beginner to myth, setups, staging, and execution for the few actions sequences in which Raven works make the legend real. All the talk of patience and endurance, all the talk of restraint, mean absolutely nothing if the audience doesn’t see it play out. There’s tension in the stillness as much as there is when Mykola is on the move, a knife proving to be as deadly in his hands as a rifle. These moments, though few, are rewarding to observe, especially the final action sequence.
Some soldiers decide to join the armed forces for themselves and plenty more do it because they have little choice. Not just in America where the military is the only path toward education and training, but especially in countries who are under siege — not just in Ukraine, but in the Middle East, in the United States of America, and anywhere else someone decides killing for land is always justified by greed. Because of this, there are stories like Voronin’s, horror stories of tragedy being the catalyst for action. Sniper: The White Raven feels poignant because of what the citizens of Ukraine face today, but it will remain so as long as there are those who will use bullets and bombs to settle arguments. How much better would the world be if Mykola had been allowed to just be a teacher? If peace were the preference over war? This may seem pretentious or naive, yet the way Bushan conveys his story, there’s a persistent sadness and loss of humanity Mykola undergoes that was never necessary. It’s a melancholy most American war films wouldn’t insert and, for that alone, Sniper: The White Raven deserves some applause.
In select theaters July 1st, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Well Go USA Sniper: The White Raven webpage.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.