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Red Army (2015)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

RED ARMY (2015)

Documentary Featuring: Slava Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Anatoli Karpov, Vladislav Tretiak, Scotty Bowman

Directed By: Gabe Polsky

The Short Version

It’s the story of the Red Army hockey team, told by Russians who played on it.

It’s also a whole lot of other stories.  (Cold War philosophy, anyone?)

Sure, some pretty important items are passed over…

…but what is there is more than worthwhile enough.

Whether or not you count yourself as a hockey fan, Red Army is definitely worth your time.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PORT WINE.

It’s tasty, and it’s got a wicked Red streak.


Pairs Well With...

WHITE RUSSIAN.

For Comrades who like to mix their messages.

“No.  If we let you skate, they are going to kill me.”


Fun fact that always makes me smile when I think about it:

At the time of this writing, the captain of the Washington Capitals – the professional hockey team that represents the capital city of the United States of America – is Alexander Ovechkin, born in the Soviet Union (to a mother who was herself a two time Olympic gold medalist representing the USSR) and still a citizen and resident of Moscow, Russia.

Why does this make me smile?  Because I remember the Cold War, and back then – which was not very long ago at all – such a notion would have been considered absurd and impossible.  Indeed, back then, international hockey rinks were battlefields in and of themselves, fought over with every bit as much intensity as the third world territories that played host to Soviet and American armor; and sometimes, even more so.

On these battlefields, the Red Army fought.  The Red Army hockey team, that is.  Now, Red Army, the documentary, aims to tell (selected portions of) their story, from the point of view of one of its greatest stars, defenseman Slava Fetisov.  And more than a few of his comrades, of course.

But first, our intrepid documentarian, Gabe Polsky (himself an American of Russian descent), has to get Mr. Fetisov’s attention.

The opening moment of Red Army is so effective that I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on it.  The camera is focused on Fetisov, who would be seated in the fashion one might expect of an interview subject if he showed any interest in being interviewed.  Instead, he’s chatting away on his phone and indicating to the gent offscreen that he’s not ready yet.  After just enough of this to get the audience wondering if there’s going to be a point to it all, some helpful text appears on the screen, identifying Fetisov and rattling off an impressive list of hockey accomplishments, which take up half a column of relatively small print  – enough to satisfy the average sports fan.  (Stanley Cup wins, that sort of thing.)  After a beat or two, the rest of the column is filled – as is another one on the other half of the screen – with a list of Fetisov’s other accomplishments.  (The Order of Lenin, that sort of thing.)

Oh.

At that point, even those members of the audience who generally aren’t sports fans  cannot help but take notice.  Now they’re ready for the story… and so is Fetisov.  It’s a risky opening that pays off beautifully, especially when things circle back at the end and the nature of the work that so captured Fetisov’s attention on the phone is revealed.  Think of the film’s style of presentation as a play on that other Russian national pastime, ballet, and you’ll be well prepared.

Over the course of the next 70-ish minutes – Red Army is a short documentary that feels longer for all the best reasons – Fetisov, his comrades, and some helpful text banners (which always first appear in Cyrillic script; a nice touch) go on to provide a history of the Red Army hockey team, from its inception under Stalin to its glory days during the 1970s and 1980s to its sunset from prominence as Russian players began to enter civilian professional leagues around the world (most notably the NHL) near and after the fall of the Soviet Union.   It is a tale that transcends the deceptively simple veneer of sport and extends into a discussion of the guiding philosophies of the Soviet Era as seen through Soviet eyes.  (Of course it would have to be; after all, Stalin himself said that the Red Army hockey team’s purpose was to show the world that the Soviet system and way of life was indeed the best.)  What it is not, however, is rigidly skewed either in favor of or with distaste for those philosophies and that system; the reality as these people saw it lies, as things so often do, somewhere in between, dependent upon the circumstance, and that is the real treasure of Red Army.  For a simple history of a sports team and its greatest luminaries told simply, this tale gets exceptionally complex after a while, and Gabe Polsky is happy to let it, and to let its messages mix like liquors stirred into a cocktail.

The members of the Red Army hockey team make no bones about the frequent inhumanity with which they were treated under the Soviet system, and they rail against very specific items, but to a man, none of them denounce the system itself, which sometimes can feel absurd to an outside observer.  Even the greatest of capitalists amongst them – Fetisov, in case you hadn’t guessed – is an adamant Russian patriot, both before and after the fall of the USSR, and despite fighting for the opportunity to play in the NHL and keep all of the money teams were willing to pay (instead of handing most of the cash to the State), he and most of his fellows clearly view modern Russian NHL players with suspicion.  (The man who I mentioned makes me smile at the start of this review, Mr. Ovechkin?  He may be the most recognizable Russian hockey player in the world, but Red Army openly questions his sincerity and patriotism.)  When it is pointed out that Vladislav Tretiak – the Red Army goalie widely considered one of the greatest in the history of the game – never played in the NHL, it is done in a way that suggests he never sold out… even after Red Army glorifies the NHL journeys of his teammates.  And the mixing goes on and on.  If you’re expecting a one-sided message skew from this flick, you’re definitely in for a surprise.

With that said, Red Army does have a definite narrative line it wants to follow, and it doesn’t let certain historical details that one would imagine belong to this story get in the way.  The Miracle on Ice?  Oh yes, that’s there, bigtime.  But the Summit Series?  Nope; some different games against Canadian players (with different overall results) are brought up instead.  How about the KHL: the Kontinental Hockey League, the Russian/European version of the NHL?  One would imagine a story about patriotic Russian hockey players and a post-Red Army identity would have to include it, but nope; the league is only briefly glossed over (to the point where if its name was used, I missed it).  So if you’re expecting a complete story, even from just the Russian side of things, you’re definitely in for a surprise.

And yet, for all the things that it misses and for all of the important details it doesn’t talk about, Red Army still comes out as a fascinating documentary that is greater than the sum of its parts and full of more stories than any reasonable audience might have gone in expecting.  Sure, it’s about a hockey team and the fortunes of its greatest players, but it’s also about the Cold War, and about human nature, and about friendship, and about the very idea of patriotism, going beyond feelings about any specific country and getting to the heart of the word itself. 

Bottom line, for sports fans, Red Army is riveting, but even for those who don’t normally follow hockey, Red Army is a fascinating way to spend seventy-odd minutes.  Give it a look; you won’t regret it.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2015


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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