Like an infinitely superior version of Rocky IV, Red Army intertwines politics and sport with the Cold War being fought in the ice rink instead of the boxing ring. This incredibly heartfelt and occasionally hilarious documentary tells the story of the Soviet Union’s awe inspiring national ice hockey team as team captain Slava Fetisov turns from national hero to endangered traitor.
The Red Army hockey team are legendary for their incredible skill on the ice, competing in the Olympic Games in the late 70s and through the 80s. As the USSR went through turbulent years of Communism, KGB repression and gradual political change, its most notable sports stars and national heroes were finding success in the arenas but difficulties in dealing with their over bearing coach and the dictatorial control others had over their lives.
Director Gabe Polsky intercuts awesome archival footage going back to the 50s with the recollections of the stars themselves, particularly team captain Slava Fetisov and leader of the magnificent five man unit who were virtually unbeatable for much of their careers. All the while, politics and economics transform the USSR into Russia and Fetisov is faced with a choice of whether to stick with a country that controls his every move or find a new life in the American National Hockey League.
Right from the start, Polsky nails the tone of his documentary superbly. Making ironic and often hilarious use of archival footage, Polsky comments on the Cold War mentality of both America and the USSR with sharp precision. Hockey was a propaganda tool with both sides claiming their victories in the sport as victories for their ways of life. Reagan talks up the importance of heroes and villains in the movies but Red Army is far more complicated than that. The early coach who helped define Russian tactics may have been taking the cream of the crop of Soviet children and drilling them hard in order to create super skaters but the training and innovation paid off. It is a terrible shame when KGB appointed Tikhonov takes over and all respect for the players is lost. 11 months of training per year in isolated training camps away from their families may help hone their skills but the players are soon unhappy and burning out.
Fetisov and other players relate their trials and triumphs but the focus is wisely on the amiable team captain. In hilariously candid and often seemingly uncut interviews, Polsky prods and pokes at his documentary’s secret weapon. In a stroke of genius, Polsky never seems to call cut when Fetisov is seated in front of the cameras for interviews. This techniques pays endless dividends with Fetisov joking with Polsky (who remains off camera) and even using his phone, telling Polsky he is a ‘very busy man’ and making him wait for his response. Similarly, Polsky’s relentless questioning and refusal to cut captures some genuinely emotional moments as the hockey stars relate their more trying experiences.
The footage of Fetisov and his team playing and skating rings around their opponents with precision passing and a tapestry of movement is breathtaking and magnificent and a sharp edged reminder of the skill and beauty of a game that too often deteriorates into throwing elbows and fighting. Even as America’s way of life seems far more appealing to the Russian squad and moves to the NHL beckon, all is not as it seems for the players who defect for a slice of the American dream.
Red Army exposes the strengths and the flaws of both capitalism and communism, all the while telling the deeply personal stories of some hockey legends. It is an absolutely fascinating documentary; heartfelt, hilarious and poignant. Charting the history of the Cold War and the rise and fall of the Red Army hockey team makes for a perfect combination of the personal and the political.
Genuinely affecting, completely absorbing and surprisingly funny, Polsky deserves to conquer the Cannes Film Festival, and the rest of the world with the help of the Red Army.
About the Author
Pete Turner is a Senior Reporter