Russia’s recent return to its adversarial ways may well boost the cultural and commercial profile of “Red Army,” a terrifically engaging flashback to the glory days of the Soviet national ice hockey team, whose enviable performance on the ice was designed to project an image of great socialist strength at the height of the Cold War. Topical resonance, however, is hardly the sole virtue of Gabe Polsky’s moving and incisive documentary, which spins a bittersweet account of the price these world-class athletes paid for fame — and ultimately, for freedom, when many faced major resistance at home after they sought to defect to the National Hockey League. Blending insightful interviews and fine archival footage over the course of a swift, absorbing 85 minutes, the Sony Classics acquisition should skate deftly through theaters en route to a rich smallscreen career.
Black-and-white film clips and expert testimonials establish at the outset that the Red Army team was conceived in the 1950s as an extension of the Soviet propaganda machine, intended to glorify communism on a global scale. One of the documentary’s key insights lies in the degree to which the Soviets’ rigorous approach to the game was informed by their socialist philosophy: The late, influential Russian coach Anatoly Tarasov (whose legacy looms over the film) believed that hockey should be played much like chess, with great intricacy and finesse, and with an emphasis on shrewd teamwork over individual performance.
It was a winning strategy, insofar as the Soviets proved virtually unbeatable from 1954-91, with the exception of their shocking, humiliating loss to a team of American college players at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid (and earlier, with less fanfare, at the 1960 Games in Squaw Valley). Still fondly remembered Stateside as one of the most rousing underdog victories in sports history, the ’80s “Miracle on Ice” (which itself has inspired no shortage of films, including Disney’s 2004 Kurt Russell starrer “Miracle”) dealt a major blow to Soviet morale at a time when tensions with the U.S. were at an all-time high; for Western audiences, getting some perspective on this chapter from the opposite side of the rink alone will make for fascinating viewing. In the wake of defeat, coach Viktor Tikhonov — a harsh, despot-like KGB appointee for whom none of the athletes interviewed can spare a kind word — completely overhauled the team, firing many veterans and installing defenseman Slava Fetisov as its youngest-ever captain.
A star on the ice and one of the most revered hockey players of all time, the now 56-year-old Fetisov is no less magnetic as the center of Polsky’s film, guiding us through the ups and downs of this massively successful and closely guarded Soviet enterprise. Fetisov and four other key players — high-scoring right-winger Sergei Makarov, left-winger Vladimir Krutov (nicknamed “the Tank”), skinny-but-tough center Igor Larionov (“the Professor”) and defenseman Alexei Kasatonov — formed a nearly invincible unit known as the Russian Five, who proceeded to dominate the sport for the next decade.
For all their success, however, by the late ’80s, the members of this close-knit group found themselves increasingly fed up with Tikhonov’s brutal training regimen and the generally oppressive nature of life as professional athletes. (Fetisov recalls how the coach didn’t even give him time off to visit his father on his deathbed, while legendary goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak describes the frustrating circumstances that led to his own premature departure from the team in 1984.) Disillusioned and exhausted, Fetisov and others looked to North America, wooed by NHL scouts and the possibility of playing hockey in a country that offered rewards, luxuries and liberties they had never known in their homeland. But they learned the hard way that Soviet officials were not willing to relinquish their star players without a fight, despite the superficial appearance of increased openness and flexibility during the glasnost era.
From there, the film becomes a stirring, often infuriating tale of personal dreams clashing with political imperatives, and Fetisov’s struggle is cast in heroic terms as he recalls being ostracized by friends and beaten by authorities, and even losing his best friend, Kasatonov, as a result of his decision to defect. The difficulties didn’t stop after he succeeded: While Fetisov went on to experience great success with the New Jersey Devils and, later, the Detroit Red Wings (with whom he won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and ’98), he opens up here about the challenges of being an athlete without a country — playing in a foreign land for a team that didn’t always understand his methods (the Soviets’ complex moves were initially dismissed in some quarters as “Bolshoi ballet”).
On one level, “Red Army” is a potent study of an unusually incestuous link between sports and politics, and the enormous personal toll it exacted from players forced to serve multiple masters. On another, it’s the story of how the brave migration of a few athletes opened the door for many more to follow suit, flooding the ranks of the NHL with Soviet talent including Larionov (who joined the Red Wings) and Makarov (Calgary Flames). Given that there are no fewer than 34 Russian players in the NHL, including superstars like Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk, Western audiences may well read the film as an uplifting narrative of communist forces ultimately ceding to, and indeed strengthening, their capitalist foes. But the strength of “Red Army” lies in its deep appreciation for the many ironies of the situation, the bone-deep complexities of national identity, and the fact that, on some level, home will always be home — as Fetisov, who remains an active figure in the Russian hockey world, can and does personally attest.
Polsky, a U.S.-based director (2012’s “The Motel Life”) who was born to Soviet immigrant parents and played hockey at Yale, channels his palpable passion for his subject into a brisk, energetic production that zips along with nary a narrative hiccup. The athletes interviewed here make for excellent company throughout, running the emotional gamut from boisterous to quietly reflective as they reminisce about their personal journeys, but always warm and revealing. The sparingly deployed hockey footage is more illustrative than dramatic, the game coming across as secondary here to those who played it, and played it well.