RED ARMY Review | TIFF 2014

     September 11, 2014

red-army

When it comes to American sports, we love our individual figures: Babe Ruth, Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky.  It’s part of the individualistic nature of county, and while we’re not against teams, we prefer legends.  There’s an entire movie set around 1980’s “Miracle on Ice”, but with Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) at the center.  These sports legends reinforce our notions of what we aspire to be. “History is written by the victors”, Churchill said, but sometimes the more interesting stories come from the defeated.  Gabe Polsky’s superb sports documentary Red Army crosses the Atlantic to explore how hockey was viewed in Russia, and how their culture affected their play and their players.  Filled with terrific mini-narratives within its larger context, Red Army is deeply insightful and constantly entertaining.

Using celebrated player Viacheslav Fetisov as the backbone of the film but expanding to other figures as well, Red Army looks at the history of the USSR’s “Red Army” hockey team, and how they became a key piece of propaganda in the Cold War.  We see how coach Anatoli Tarasov developed a unique style of play for the team, why he was replaced with KGB stooge Victor Tikhonov, how they coped with the devastating loss at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, the core players around Fetisov, and how it all broke apart as the USSR crumbled.

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We like our sports heroes to display heroic qualities: nobility, humility, and warmth (we then let their private lives destroy that perception).  Polsky lets us know we’re in for an entirely different experience with Red Army as the movie opens with Fetisov busy clicking away on his cell phone, ignoring the questions while his multitude of accomplishments are listed on the screen, and when pressed for answers, he flips off the camera.  It’s difficult to imagine someone like Wayne Gretsky doing that.  But when you hear Festisov’s story, Tikhonov’s demands on the Red Army team, the conditions of life in communist Russia, and the restrictions on his career, Fetisov’s attitude becomes understandable.  It may not be a face that’s always smiling, but it’s always honest.

One of the many remarkable aspects of Red Army is how Polsky is able to keep the dour circumstances of life under communism exciting while still serious.  The camera and editing are dynamic, but never superfluous.  When he pushes the camera in on an interview subject, it’s for emotional effect instead of just being showy.  The movie needs this energy, especially in its more difficult aspects like Festisov dwelling on how his team lost the gold at Lake Placid, and the resulting fallout including workouts so bad that it caused players to piss blood.  That’s not a setup for a triumphant training montage showing the players’ determination to succeed in the future.  That’s torture.

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The documentary is a potent reminder of how the USSR needed to win the Cild War so badly that hockey was part of the military.  The US was also an active participant in these proxy battles, but the USSR pushed it to a disturbing extreme, and the “Red Army” hockey team almost became a prison.  But we see how it also fostered a brotherhood among the “Russian Five”—Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Vladimir Krutov.  Polsky explains why they were each so successful, but without getting bogged down in minutiae.  He also creates narratives amongst the team such as the strong bond between Fetisov and Kasatonov.

When Polsky interviews Fetisov’s teammates, they give the same answer as to why they were so close and so successful: “We were the same.”  While other teams may have players with similar backgrounds, we see how the Red Army was a single unit, and how that was both the secret to their success, and also how they became outdated as larger economic circumstances changed the face of the country and national hockey.  That’s the problem with turning your team into a symbol for the entire country: when the country changes, so does the symbol.  “We lost our pride,” says Fetisov.

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Red Army moves with all the swiftness and grace of an all-star player, and scores every time.  Polsky has crafted a vibrant, exciting, and illuminating movie that skillfully uses a sport as a lens explore personalities, culture, and history.  The best sports documentaries find larger truths beyond replays, wins, and losses.  These documentaries illustrate a larger point instead of creating a tribute or a hagiography.  Simply put, Red Army is one of the best sports documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Rating: A

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