The makers of Blockade took on a gargantuan challenge when they decided to make a film about one of the defining political crises of the early 1990s, as Hungary has not produced great movies about politics for quite a while, and also because very few films were made about the first years of democracy in the country.
The year is 1990, and József Antall (played by Zoltán Seress) is trying to solve the economic and geopolitical issues of Hungary as its first democratically elected Prime Minister in the post-communist era. After a trip to Moscow, his doctor discovers a lemon-sized tumor on his body, but Antall postpones the much-needed surgery by months, saying that he has “no time to be ill”.
Eventually, when he believes that the time is right, he decides to undergo the operation, just as oil from the Soviet Union stops flowing, forcing the government into a painful fuel price hike. Just as he wakes up, he realizes that the situation went awry and taxi drivers set up roadblocks on bridges in the capital and all over the country in protest, forcing the recovering PM to take the reins while being confined to his bed.
Setting the Mood
Generally speaking, the casting was well done, with both Seress, and Attila Vidnyánszky Jr. (who plays the young version of Antall in the 1956 scenes) performing convincingly in their roles, nailing the PM mannerisms. Ildikó Tóth does well as the 1990 version of Klára Fülepp, the PM’s wife, and so does Luca Márkus as her younger version. However, it is Tibor Gáspár who looks like a picture-perfect copy of President Göncz with his characteristic mustache and snow-white hair and the actor also talks quite like him.
In terms of atmosphere, there is nothing wrong with the film, which sometimes feels like a biopic, and sometimes like a political drama based on real events. The cars, the way characters dress, and the scenery all work well in making the viewer feel like he is watching Hungary in 1990. The director, Ádám Tősér, also blended some reports from the era seamlessly with newly filmed material.
In terms of music, the film does use a few great songs from the era, such as the new wave epic “Induljon a Banzáj” and the working class anthem “8 Óra Munka”, but a few more tracks would have worked wonders in some of the more static shots showing the situation on the bridges. Talking about bridges, it is important to note that the bridge scenes were actually shot on sets built on the Mogyoród Formula 1 Track, with CGI taking care of the background, but, quite surprisingly, it is not really noticeable.
It is certainly a difficult task to make a movie exciting when the protagonist is bed-ridden, but “Blockade” almost manages to achieve this, with Antall’s flashbacks to the 1950s and negotiations with figures like Helmut Kohl peppering in some speed when the hospital scenes start to feel a bit slow. The flashbacks to the days of the 1956 uprising against Soviet oppression, when Antall was a young, somewhat naive, yet principled teacher, are well-done with darker shots, with the more run-down scenery setting the mood, and the communist secret police agents do indeed look intimidating. These scenes are also bolstered by Vidnyánszky Jr.’s performance as both a lover and a teacher looking to educate his pupils about the truth instead of communist propaganda, a decision that would lead to significant consequences.
Blockade’s creators said that they took a deep dive into historical documents in order to recreate events faithfully, and even brought on board Imre Kónya (who also appears in the movie, played by Gábor Csőre), a key member of Antall’s party who was in the thick of the events in 1990, as a special consultant. While the film does tick several boxes in terms of iconic events, such as the Minister of Interior waving to the crowd through a window while intoxicated, and Antall’s legendary “pajamas interview” at the end of the film, even those not well-versed in Hungarian politics may feel like something is wrong.
An Infallible Hero?
Indeed, the main issue with the picture is while Antall is put on a pedestal, becoming a cold-blooded, pragmatic hero sacrificing his health for the good of the country, it makes Göncz look like a petulant, scheming villain always looking to foil the PM’s plans to resolve the crisis. Seress does play the role of the teacher-turned-librarian-turned-politician with aplomb, but Blockade’s Antall barely has any personal flaws (except for talking too much and not listening, according to his son), and he looks like he knows the answer to every single issue.
The members of his government also fall victim to the same problem to a lesser extent, maybe with the exception of the aforementioned Minister of Interior, Balázs Horváth. The rare moments when Antall’s human character shines through, like when talking to his wife after learning that his condition is even more serious than previously thought are great but few and far between.
It is also important to mention that while he definitely was one of the most important politicians after the fall of communism, Antall is not a universally acclaimed character in Hungary today. While he is often praised for laying the groundwork for democracy and contributing to the fall of the Warsaw Pact, quite a few people resent him for the rise in crime, poverty, and unemployment under his tenure.
On the other hand, Göncz’s emotional outbursts, and actions to bolster his own image make him look like a selfish populist who cares more about himself and his party than the country. Unlike Antall, Göncz remained a popular figure all the way until he left his office in 2000, when his approval rating stood at around 80%.
In addition, it would have been nice to see more in-depth depictions of the leaders of the demonstration, but, in defense of its creators, it is refreshing that the flick is not overly bloated, running for a healthy 105 minutes.
When the shooting began, practically nobody expected “Blockade” to become Hungary’s nomination for the Academy Awards, as the movie’s creators explained. While a political drama set in a small country in Central Eastern Europe might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine earlier this year gave the film a lot of unexpected relevance. With political crises and protests erupting across the world due to rising energy prices, suddenly the crisis in Hungary brought about by the lack of Russian oil in the early 1990s now seems like a more familiar situation than one might think, even for people living thousands of miles away from Budapest.
All in all, “Blockade” is an ambitious attempt at making a movie about a previously untapped topic. Despite its flaws, it is an enjoyable film set just after the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc, and it is very well done from a technical standpoint, so if you do not mind watching an interesting political drama lionizing a politician who is actually a somewhat polarizing character in real life, it might just be a flick worth watching.
Director: Ádám Tősér;
Writer: Norbert Köbli;
Cast: Zoltán Seress, Attila Vidnyánszky Jr., Tibor Gáspár, Ildikó Tóth, Luca Márkus;
Hungarian political drama, 105 minutes, 2022
All in all, "Blockade" is an ambitious attempt at making a movie about a previously untapped topic. Despite its flaws, it is an enjoyable film set just after the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc, and it is very well done from a technical standpoint, so if you do not mind watching an interesting political drama lionizing a politician who is actually a somewhat polarizing character in real life, it might just be a flick worth watching.