Film Review: Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine

The almost-forgotten war in Ukraine is dramatically revisited in this sobering dispatch from the front lines of the simmering European-Russian shadow war.
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It’s a shame that Breaking Point: The War for Democracy is getting released in 2018, three years after Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom received an Oscar nomination and a prime slot on Netflix. Since the domestic documentary market can usually only handle one movie in a given period of time on a topic, particularly one as out of the news and far from America as the war in Ukraine, Breaking Point is likely to have far less visibility. This is a shame because, even though not without faults, it is the superior movie.

Directed by Mark Jonathan Harris (the Oscar-nominated Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport) and Oles Sanin (The Guide), Breaking Point is a story of resistance told in large part by a cadre of volunteers who took first to the streets and then the battlefield. Hailing from a patchwork of backgrounds, from rabbi to doctor and even children’s theatre director, they have been fighting since 2013 to create and maintain a truly democratic country not in thrall to a subversively expansionist Russia.

A quick history lesson describes Ukraine’s past as a fertile “breadbasket” doomed for centuries to be ravaged and plundered by everyone from the Mongols to Hitler and Stalin. The movie jumps quickly through the post-Soviet 1991 referendum that declared independence, the so-called “Orange Revolution” that tossed out Viktor Yanukovych’s most-likely fraudulent win in the 2004 presidential election, and then Yanukovych’s return to power as a corrupt and thieving pro-Russian stooge. His 2013 attempt to scuttle a European Union trade pact opposed by Moscow sparked another public outburst. This time, after student protestors were violently attacked by police, the protests spread and turned into a running battle through Kiev’s streets.

The initial fight for control of Kiev, and thus Ukraine itself, is told in large part through alternately thrilling and harrowing footage of the street combat between EU flag-waving democracy activists and stormtrooper-attired riot police, both sides facing off premodern style with Romain centurion-like lines of tall shields. Context is provided by the participants themselves, as well as pro-democracy politicians and outside experts on European conflict and Russian totalitarianism like historians Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder.

Once Yanukovych’s regime is overthrown, Breaking Point doesn’t waste much time on celebration. Instead, it moves right on to the backlash from Russia, a broader development that the more narrowcast Winter on Fire didn’t quite get to. First, Crimea falls in 2014 to an assault by Russian soldiers who had removed insignia from their uniforms (the filmmakers include some clips of the soldiers themselves that make their identity all too clear). Then, the so-called “little green men” started pushing into eastern Ukraine itself with the help of pro-Russian separatists in the region and an onslaught of destabilizing propaganda and misinformation, which Applebaum terms a “de facto” invasion, arguably the first to occur in Europe since the end of World War II.

At this point Kiev’s tattered army, a shell of a thing after years of corruption (one journalist colorfully terms it an “ugly idiot child”), is bolstered by rapidly assembled units of volunteers, which brings the movie back to its primary interest, telling their stories of bravery and hard-fought idealism in the face of overwhelming odds. The movie doesn’t spend too much time on the front lines, excepting short sections covering the battles of Ilovaisk and Donetsk Airport with dramatic first-person footage.

The filmmakers’ overemphasis on individual stories of heroic volunteers hurts the overall narrative here by distracting from a broader view of the conflict and verging on celebratory. As much as the movie wants to (correctly) critique Moscow’s continual sabotage of the country, by not even mentioning the beliefs of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who welcome that meddling, it opens itself up to charges of pro-Kiev propaganda.

That is not to say that Breaking Point has its heart in the wrong place. Watching the ragtag civilian-soldiers in mismatched uniforms blast away with machine guns and recoilless rifles against an unseen enemy is reminiscent of seeing similarly equipped and loosely organized anti-Assad militias take on Russian-backed forces in Syria. Like the seemingly endless war in Syria, fighting in Ukraine has dragged on even after a ceasefire was signed in 2015, largely out of the view of the West, killing at least 10,000 people and displacing nearly two million. 

In addition to waging war against their massively more powerful neighbor to the East, Ukraine also contends with a debilitating legacy of corruption, meaning that the pro-democracy forces need to utterly reinvent the nation while still battling to hold it together. Given those odds, the movie’s concluding notes of cautious optimism feel earned, but just barely.

Click here for cast and crew information.