Movie review: Ukrainian war drama 'Sniper: The White Raven' a patriotic story of unlikely soldier

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service on

Published in Entertainment News

The world has watched in shock and horror at the bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine this year, but the conflict between the countries has been ongoing in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine since 2014, when the “Revolution of Dignity” sent former President Victor Yanukovych into exile, and Russia invaded Crimea. During the past eight years, Ukrainian filmmakers have grappled with the war in the east, from Valentyn Vasyanovych’s stunning dystopia “Atlantis,” to Maryna Er Gorbach’s intense 2022 Sundance-award winning film “Klondike.” Marian Bushan’s film “Sniper: The White Raven" joins the ranks of Ukrainian films confronting the events of the past eight years, and though the tone is far more patriotic war movie than existential exegesis, it captures the determination and spirit that has given Ukrainian soldiers — and thereby the country itself — a fighting chance.

Based on the true story of Mykola Voronin, “Sniper: The White Raven,” follows one man’s hellish transformation into a war hero. When we meet Mykola, played by the expressive-eyed actor, musician and photographer Aldoshyn Pavlo, he’s living a hippie utopian life in the Donetsk region, teaching physics at the local high school and homesteading a ramshackle sod house on a piece of remote land with his ethereal wife Nastya (Maryna Koshkina). They’re eco-pioneers of sorts, committed to their environmental ideals, though the community has yet to accept them. All they have, and need, is each other, and they have high hopes for their slice of the simple life, even as war looms.

Too soon, tragedy arrives at their doorstep, and Mykola, seeking revenge, place, and purpose, rapidly joins a volunteer battalion. Derided as a “pacifist,” he takes the moniker “Raven” (a reference to a creation myth his wife has told), and quickly volunteers for sniper training, proving he can assemble his rifle in 18 seconds — blindfolded. His aptitude for physics and math, plus his determination, rockets him up in the ranks, much to the surprise of his peers and leaders, and the Raven becomes a kind of avenging angel.

“Sniper: The White Raven” is gorgeously shot: cinematographer Kostiantyn Ponomarov’s camera fluidly travels around the spaces Mykola traverses in his training, following or finding him. The light is gorgeous, the edit is swift, and though there’s an over-reliance on sweeping drone shots, it’s helpful to take in the full scope of the land. Ponomarov crafts surreal images of the natural landscape, so important to Ukraine that the gold and blue of the land and sky make up the flag. Fields of dead sunflowers droop their dried heads over the camouflaged snipers, covered in grass and dirt; soldiers creep through misty fields against a crimson sunrise.

The best moments come when Bushan slows down to examine the moment-to-moment experience of the sniper: silence and dials and observation; discernment and decision-making and extreme patience. It’s a communion with the natural world, dependent on the breeze and the bugs, and Bushan captures the work of a sniper in poetic cinematic terms.

The aesthetic tends toward the beautiful rather than the bleak, and in doing so, Bushan renders the Ukrainian volunteer battalion and their efforts, training, and mission a beautiful and noble one. There is not much subtlety or nuance in the storytelling, which sees violence as valor, a necessary evil to protect the home, hearth, and homeland. It is not necessarily pro-war but it is decidedly pro-soldier, and “pacifist” Mykola turns to the fight with a quickness that would induce whiplash.

We witness the trauma and violence transform his face as he transforms himself in war, but he never questions his quest. All of the Russian soldiers are bullies and sadists; the forthright Ukrainians take up arms because they have to defend their families. The music soars, the blood spatters, the drones swoop. It’s the kind of stirring, patriotic sentiment that no doubt motivates soldiers, or volunteers, and with the war in Ukraine continuing to rage, “Sniper: The White Raven” fits into the proud nationalism that has united the country to fight back against Russia. Bleak existentialism has no purchase here, and “Sniper: The White Raven” distills that uniquely Ukrainian sense of pride, glory and duty into this story of an unlikely soldier.




3 stars out of 4

(In Ukrainian and Russian with English subtitles)

MPAA rating: R (for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity)

Running time: 1:51

Where to watch: In theaters and VOD Friday


©2022 Tribune Content Agency, LLC


blog comments powered by Disqus