Directed by: Gabe Polsky.
Growing up in Canada in the early 1980s and 1990s, the biggest rivalry in hockey was always between Canada and the U.S.S.R. – and then later Russia. At every world juniors, or various Canada Cup tournaments, it inevitably came down to Canada vs. the Russians for all the marbles. The rivalry started all the back in 1972 – with the so-called Summit Series, that everyone in Canada assumed we would win – and although we eventually did – it literally came down to the final seconds in the final game to do it. If you loved hockey in Canada – and who doesn’t – you hated the Russians. But at the time, I had no idea of the politics behind the U.S.S.R. – or what the Cold War was (sue me, I was born in 1981), so watching Red Army – Gabe Polsky’s excellent documentary about Soviet hockey from the late 1970s to early 1990s – is enlightening, as well as entertaining. Great hockey movies are few and far between (Slap Shot, Goon, and what else? The Last Gladiators? Miracle? The Rocket? The Mighty Ducks? Youngblood? – you can see the trouble here), so this is a must see for hockey fans.
Polsky’s documentary concentrates mainly on Slava Fetisov – who was the captain of the Soviet team for much of the 1980s, and is considered one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history. As a kid, he worked hard just to make the Red Army program – and then had to work even harder once he made it. His first coach was the beloved Anatoly Tarasov, who was a great mentor, and treated the players with respect. But he upset the government – so he was banished, replaced by a KGB appointee, Viktor Tikhonov, who was brutal in his cruelty and demands he placed on his players. They trained 11 months of the year, had to live together, away from their families – and basically had little say in anything they did. The Red Army team was a huge source of pride for the Soviets – who spared no expense in making them the best team in the world – which, for a long time, they were. Even as the “Evil Empire” started to sputter during the 1980s, the hockey team excelled.
Fetisov is a great interview subject for Polsky – so it`s no surprise he chooses him to filter the experiences of the whole team through although it`s completely logical when you consider that if you`re making a documentary of the period, you’d have to pick one of the famed five man unit that so dominated during that time, and two of them are no in this movie at all (so, we can assume, said no), one is known for not saying much, and the fifth is the only member who sided with the hated Tikhonov when he and Fetisov clashed after the Calgary Olympics in 1988. It`s also good because Fetisov returned to Russian in the early 2000s, where he became Minister of Sport – and helped to rebuild the hockey program there. He has recently made headlines again – saying he wants to keep Russian hockey players in Russia until they are 28 years old – so they’ll stay in the KHL, instead of leaving for the NHL as teenagers. If that sounds hypocritical – considering Fetisov eventually left for the NHL himself, and only after a protracted battle with the Soviet government (unlike some of his teammates, he refused to give part of his contract to the cash strapped government) – well, that`s because it is. But at the same time, as Fetisov points out in this documentary, he did stay in Russia, and played for the National team for years, and loved it, before he left to make money in the NHL. He simply wants today’s crop of Russian players to do the same. That doesn’t make what he wants right – anyone should be allowed to choose where they want to play if they’re good enough – but does make it somewhat understandable.
I think that ultimately, that is what makes Red Army work so well – how it captures the way that players like Fetisov could both love and hate playing for the Red Army team. He is proud of everything he accomplished, and loved his fellow players like brothers – but hated his coach, and the way he was treated.
The film is also just fascinating as Fetisov shares his memories of travelling to the West for the first time – to play in various exhibitions against Canadian teams, always accompanied by KGB agents, to ensure no one defected. The film could have done a slightly better job at covering the actual hockey however – and how the five man unit worked then, but has been disastrous for the Russians in recent years. The film is also a little harsh in calling the North American game as crude – but that may well be bias on my part. As a film, it is slightly more interesting than most documentaries – using some interesting visuals to break up the monotony of the typical talking head/archival footage that dominates most of the movie.
Red Army is a fascinating documentary – one that paints a picture of player and team, but also places it in a larger political context. It is a great hockey movie – but it’s more than that as well.