RED ARMY Review: Game On
My earliest recollection of ice hockey dates back to when I was about six years old, when my Babchi’s beloved Philadelphia Flyers – more notoriously known as the Broad Street Bullies – won the first of two back-to-back Stanley Cups. (Her favorite player was center Orest Kindrachuk; he was a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, but she only saw him as Ukrainian.) I’ve been hooked on the sport ever since. There’s a lot that sets hockey apart from its “Big Four” brethren (baseball, basketball, and football), but perhaps the most unique facet of the sport is its geopolitical history. Hockey might have its roots planted in the Great White North, but the Cold War path some of its greatest players took to get to the NHL is colored red. That path is the subject of the sensational documentary Red Army, from writer/director Gabe Polsky.
The film’s core is the (hockey) life story of Slava Fetisov, a Russian sports legend who came up through the Red Army system to eventually became captain the national team. It traces his playing career from those mighty Red Army “Russian Five” years, through his NHL days, and into the present, where he is long-retired from hockey and now holds the title of Minister of Sport, a political appointment made by Vladimir Putin.
Polsky sets the stage with a b/w, 1950s-era Ronald Reagan clip that isn’t hockey-specific in its original context, but it resonates nonetheless as it speaks of the Communist threat and the worry it created in the hearts and minds of Americans circa the mid-to-late 20th century. A lot has changed since those times, and Polsky is wise to remind the older viewers, and educate the younger ones, that even something as unthreatening as sport was still very much a xenophobic us-vs-them proposition.
Cut to Fetisov as a child and suddenly the Cold War has a baby face. Like so many American kids of yesterday and today, Fetisov had childhood aspirations of sports greatness, with parents scrimping and saving (and this is 1950s Russia scrimping and saving) to get the gear to give their boy a chance. This adds a remarkable texture to the tale that offers considerable contrast to the icy world behind the Iron Curtain.
The story expands from there. Like his physical stature (6’1″ and 215, but far larger on skates and in full hockey gear), Fetisov as documentary subject is like the trunk of an oak, with branches that extend to include hockey lessons, sports psychology sessions, Cold War history classes, and clinics on teamwork. Those branches are then soaked in an outpouring of patriotism – Russian patriotism – that rivals the national pride any US athlete would feel in a similar circumstance.
This patriotism, unabashedly displayed by Fetisov throughout the film, first shows itself at the mention of the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, scene of the Miracle on Ice, when a team of upstart American college hockey players defied the odds to win gold. The look of disappointment in Fetisov’s face some 35 years later, as highlights play in the background, is pained and heavy and clearly more than the agony of personal defeat. He led the team that until then had gone undefeated for a length of time measured in years, then let down his country on the world’s biggest stage. It’s heartbreaking to see how haunted this champion is by this one moment in time. (For the record, how the Miracle on Ice is presented in this film is some of the best highlight packaging of the event I’ve ever seen – particularly the use of slow-motion.)
As the film marches through the history of Russia, its hockey team, and its glasnost growing pains, Polsky turns to other subjects – teammates, coaches, media, loved ones, even a retired KGB agent – to paint a complex portrait of a convergence of politics and sports, twisted by how the extremeness of the politics and sports (the Evil Empire of the former, the increasing riches of the latter) complicated matters exponentially. And Polsky’s ability to both separate the sympathetic Fetisov from the Russian government and then demonize that government using Fetisov as the conduit is a case of “don’t hate the player, hate the game” at an otherworldly level.
But it’s the filmmaker’s repeated return to Fetisov, and how the events around the legendary defenseman affected him as a player and a leader and a son and a husband, that grounds the story and makes it easily accessible to anyone, regardless of age or sports inclination.
Red Army illustrates a masterful balance of telling stories that otherwise would (rightfully) battle each other for attention, coupled with a precision integration of those stories to create a well-paced, cohesive narrative, and wrapped in a terrific collection of clips, pictures, and hockey highlights. All credit to Polsky for taking what could have been a half-dozen solid independent documentaries and turning it all into one lithe, 85-minute trip to a past that feels like forever ago, yet one so many of us lived at least part of. This is a can’t-miss doc for laypeople and puckheads alike.