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Film Review: Red Army

Red Army (2014; Directed by Gabe Polsky)

In the Soviet Union, world-class athletes were trained and drilled relentlessly to best opponents from Western democracies on the field of play and to therefore demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet system and way of life to decadent capitalism. These practices resulted in dominant teams headed by generational players that dominated international competitions with a fluid and skilled style of play. But behind the scenes, the sporting heroes on these teams were controlled tightly by state agents, bullied and mistreated by their imperious coach, and even under glasnost and perestroika in the late stage of the U.S.S.R. under Mikhail Gorbachev were threatened with reprisals once they departed their state-controlled Russian teams for the professional leagues in North America.

Gabe Polsky’s Red Army tells this story of Soviet sport in the context of ice hockey and particularly through the perspective of legendary defenseman Slava Fetisov, but it’s very similar to the much richer version of the same narrative related in The Other Dream Team, a superb 2012 documentary on the Lithuanian national basketball team’s emergence from behind the Iron Curtain after serving as the Soviet national team through the 1980s. Considering hockey’s much greater importance in Russia in relation to basketball, Red Army ought to be the better story in this particular vein. But perhaps due to its importance, and/or to the integration of its subject with the Soviet-revivalist government of Vladimir Putin (Fetisov is now his Minister of Sport), it’s oddly less compelling.

Fetisov is at the core of Red Army, and though his English is essentially fluent, he proves to be at once reticent and unreflective on his days as a key member of the remarkable Red Army hockey club which amazed international competitors and spectators through the 1970s and 1980s. His memory has not faded, and he and other appearing interviewees (including his teammates Alexei Karpovtsev, Vladislav Tretiak, and Vladimir Krutov) provide Polsky with enough narration to move the film forward. But Fetisov possesses the bluntness of a hockey player (who surely have the most neutered imaginations and most cliched utterances in the whole constellation of jocks) combined with the secretive caution of a political figure in a dangerous, corrupt, and distrustful regime where reprisals are not uncommon (I speak of Putin’s Russia, not that of the Soviets, although living in one would serve to prepare you for the other).

Polsky chooses to include this aspect of Fetisov’s nature in Red Army, editing in footage of his subject staring intently at his smartphone while Polsky asks him questions, which he then brushes off casually. Polsky himself doesn’t come across as a terribly insightful or penetrating interviewer in the snatches of his questions that are heard, although he must have been to obtain the information necessary to craft the film, which is reasonably well-made and has the backing of heavyweights Jerry Weintraub and Werner Herzog as producers. Polsky proves adept at culling archival footage, however, intercutting classic game footage of Fetisov and his teammates with Red Army and later the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings (he did finally make his way to the NHL, although much of his salary went back to the coffers of the Politburo in Moscow) with Soviet propaganda broadcasts, Don Cherry trashing Russian players, current Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin shooting pucks at Russian nesting dolls filled with Russian salad dressing, and a young William Shatner dancing through the aisles of a Canadian supermarket ad.

Red Army is not a poor documentary by any means, but it isn’t one of the best you’ll ever see either, with apologies to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg. As a document of life under the yoke of communism and how the triumph of national sports played into it (circuses rather than bread, etc.), it leaves much to be desired. The film has a better mind for the differences between the style, tactics, and culture around hockey in Russia as opposed to North America’s smash-mouth version than it does for wider cultural or societal divergences.

But Slava Fetisov’s ingrained reluctance to indulge in much glasnost with regard to the Soviet system’s deeper character, as opposed to the interpersonal meanness of longtime Red Army head coach (and KGB flunky) Viktor Tikhonov, transfers to Polsky’s film. If Fetisov reserves judgement on the nature of life in the Soviet Union (possibly for political reasons), then Polsky politely echoes that tendency. But also like Fetisov, Red Army straddles a fine line between nostalgic appreciation for the hyper-skilled, aesthetically remarkable hermetic hockey of the Soviets and an appreciation of the authoritarian iron fist that lurked behind it.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews, Sports
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