EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a capsule review. The full review will be released once the film hits theatres.
Sometimes it takes one great interview subject to turn a competent documentary into a must-see. In Red Army, a sports doc that rivals the finest from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, that man is legendary Russian defenseman Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov.
Fetisov is our key to understanding how the competition heated up on the ice during the Cold War, as tensions were at a peak between the U.S. and the USSR. The Russian national ice hockey club, nicknamed the “Red Army” in the West, was devoted to mold the best of the best. There, the ideology of playing hockey was not as much to have fun than to demolish the West through rigorous playing and precise passing.
Full of power and precision, the “Red Army” was the best team in the world. However, serving as a hockey superstar in the USSR was akin to military training. Players studied the movement of Bolshoi dancers and learned the psychology of chess to outmaneuver opponents.
However, while the Soviets played hockey with the focus and intelligence of chess masters, they were also being used like pawns on a chessboard in the 1980s. After the U.S. team beat them for gold in 1980, coach Viktor Tikhonov fired the veterans from Team Russia and buckled down on players during training. As one of the players director Gabe Polsky interviews says, “If I ever need a heart transplant I want Tikhonov’s. He’s never used his.”
Despite some stiffness and hesitation from Fetisov and other Russian players in the early scenes, director Gabe Polsky manages to open these teammates up about both their honor for Russia and their disgust for the dehumanizing training regimen. Fetisov may look stiff, but he shares some deeply poignant stories about his tested friendships with teammates and his shaky relationship with both the Russian authorities and American crowds he played for.
Red Army is a fascinating portrait of a hockey dichotomy – between the smiling, opportunistic Western players and the chiseled, calm collective from the Soviet Union. Polsky, the son of Russian immigrants who grew up in Chicago, remains fascinated by two opposing views of who reigned superior during the Cold War era.
The director’s boyish voice and Red Army’s propulsive pacing reflects an enthusiasm to find out more about a chapter in sports history that he does not know about, resulting in a smooth glide through a lot of historical and political context with the grace of a Russian player and the energy of a Canadian one.
Red Army is an insightful, riveting look at sports, politics and patriotism that should even entertain those who do not care for hockey.