A movie review of “Red Army,” a terrific documentary about the Soviet Union’s national ice-hockey team when Cold War tensions were running high. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
What if the pursuit of the sport you loved involved being part of a propaganda machine?
Director Gabe Polsky (“The Motel Life”) provides fascinating answers in “Red Army,” his documentary about the Soviet Union’s national ice-hockey team when Cold War tensions were running high and the sport was “a kind of warfare.” In masterfully orchestrated detail, he serves up a story that’s about much more than ice hockey. Politics, patriotism, team effort, individualism, friendships, loyalty, betrayal, opportunism — all are in intricate play here.
Polsky’s chief interviewee is former Soviet hockey hero Slava Fetisov, one of the “Russian Five” who led the team to international victory. Prickly, bemused and cagey (if he’s as sly as a politician, that’s because he later became Vladimir Putin’s minister of sport), Fetisov reveals what was wonderful about Soviet ice hockey and what was maddening.
Movie Review ★★★★
‘Red Army,’ a documentary written and directed by Gabe Polsky. 85 minutes. Rated PG for thematic material and language. Sundance Cinemas (21+).
For Fetisov, coach Anatoli Tarasov inaugurated a golden age in the sport. Tarasov looked to chess strategies and the dance of the Bolshoi Ballet for inspiration on how to knit his key five players into a single high-speed near-telepathic unit, cutting and weaving their way up and down the ice.
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Vintage footage of them in action makes a powerful case that their approach to the game had a sophistication their North American counterparts couldn’t match. But when Tarasov fell afoul of the authorities and was replaced by martinet Viktor Tikhonov, team morale crumbled.
After they lost the 1980 Olympics to the U.S., Tikhonov’s coaching practices grew tyrannical. Players spent 11 months of the year confined to isolated training camps. As one player recalls, “You’re always alone with the team. No wife and kids.”
“Red Army” tracks how the team unraveled, with players defecting to the West or simply quitting. Its final undoing: As a cash-poor USSR tottered into the glasnost/perestroika era, players were “sold” to National Hockey League teams, provided they sent half their earnings back to their country.
Fetisov refused to go along with this and, through sheer stubbornness, obtained Russia’s “first multiple working visa to the U.S.” American life brought its own sense of alienation and culture shock to Fetisov and his wife — culture shock that continued when, at Putin’s invitation, they returned to Russia and found a post-Communist society changed past all recognition.
Wittily edited and beautifully scored, “Red Army” is not just a terrific film but an important one — even if you don’t give two hoots about ice hockey.