Red Army is the story of a team of highly specialized USSR officers, brought together by their elite skills and given a particularly public mission: to strike blows against the West in head-to-head skirmishes, in the name of proving the glory of the communist lifestyle over that of capitalism.
That those elite skills included skating, puck-handling and teamwork on the ice didn’t limit their relevance to the cause; and likewise, just because Red Army is, ostensibly, about hockey—the Soviet Union’s world-dominating team, capable of going years without losing a game—doesn’t mean it can’t provide a fascinating peek behind a very specific corner of the Iron Curtain. It certainly does: Gabe Polsky’s documentary—Werner Herzog hangs an executive producer credit here—is revealing, thrilling, charming and impressively dense for its just-shy of 80-minute runtime.
It’s framed primarily by team captain Slava Fetisov, as well as his closest teammates, sports journalists, some American coaches and an incredible bevy of archival footage from both Communist-era Russia and North America (Gretzky looking young, after being defeated by the USSR squad! Don Cherry in a relatively sensible suit!). It uses the team as a glimpse into the Soviet lifestyle: Stalin created the hockey club as a way of demonstrating superiority over the West, which it did, for a long, long time. Polsky also shows the costs of that success: loneliness, the extremes of the team’s training camps—the players would be home for 36 days a year—as well as the cruelty of a longtime coach/KGB officer Viktor Tikhonov, who wouldn’t let a player leave training go see his dying father. The political parallels on and off the ice are obvious, but Polsky handles their telling very well: as the nation’s ideology began to fracture, questions began to arise as to whether or not, in the wake of post-communism Russia, such elite players would be allowed to play in the NHL. There were costs to that, too, for even publicly considering such deals, which Fetisov did, and quickly found himself go from hero to pariah.
As interviews, the Russians are sort of endearingly ambivalent to traditional interview manner, or, in Fetisov’s case, sometimes outright rude to Polsky. They fidget, phones in hand even while talking. An ex-KGB officer has his granddaughter running around all interview, commenting occasionally, which gives the talking heads set-up a more curious energy than usual.
Hockey fan or not, Red Army angles itself as a grippingly told, well-executed documentary. It’s a story about ideology and sport, a game that just so happened to parallel the Cold War that raged all around it, and the consequences of success and failure, on and off the ice.
Fri, May 1 – Wed, May 6
Metro Cinema at the Garneau