Opening today in the Triangle at The Raleigh Grande:
RED ARMY (Dir. Gabe Polsky, 2014)
I’m so not a sports guy, but I do enjoy a good sports documentary every now and then. So I must point out that Gabe Polsky’s RED ARMY, the writer/director’s second feature after his not bad drama THE MOTEL LIFE, is one of the best sports docs I’ve ever seen.
It tightly tells the story of the Soviet Union’s dominance of ice hockey, via their national team The Red Army Hockey Club, during the height of cold war tensions, and you don’t have to be a fan of hockey (or cold war tensions) to get swept up in its well paced narrative.
Largely anchored by an on camera interview with one of the key players, Slava Fetisov, multiple world championship winner and former Minister of Sport for Russia from 2002 to 2008, the film traces the history of the team, which was founded under Joseph Stalin in the '50s.
Through a poppy mixture of imagery that we be very familiar to fans of the FX program The Americans, including propaganda posters (with bright red coloring, of course), footage of oppressed Russian culture, and archival news reports, we are shown how in a demonstration of Soviet Superiority, Stalin would create athletes to dominate the West. In one bit of funny footage, a group of well groomed adolescent boys sings the chorus: “Cowards don’t play hockey.”
Soviet Hockey Coach Anatoly Tarasov is credited for developing the program via lifting techniques from the Bolshoi Ballet and chess which as American journalist Lawrence Martin says made their passing game “a intricate artistic tapesty which we didn't see over here.”
Newspaper headlines super-imposed on pertinent stock footage take us through the space and arms races and then we land in the '70s with a winning streak against Canada leading up to the team's first bout against America in two decades at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
Prior to this, Tarasov is replaced by the chief of the KGB as coach by the volatile Viktor Tikhonov, the true villain of this film. When the Russians are defeated by the U.S. Olympic hockey team at Lake Placid, Tikhonov fired the veteran players, and rebuilds the team with Festisov and four other star players (including defenseman Alexei Kasatonov), who became known as “The Russian Five.”
This unit dominated international competition in the '80s, winning gold medals in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, but it was under a harsh regiment that had its members at a training camp for 11 months a year missing their families.
The financial collapse of the Soviet Union in the late '80s meant the end of the cold war, which meant as Bryant Gumbel says on an excerpted broadcast that “Some of those world class atheletes that are in the Soviet Union will be allowed to come west, turn pro, and play for big rubles.”
A tug of war results over the NHL and the Red Army over Festisov wanting to leave the U.S.S.R. and play for the New Jersey Devils. Festisov's wife speaks about her husband being captured by police in Kiev, handcuffed to a car battery and beaten until late into the night over this conflict.
RED ARMY well illustrates the devotion of these men to the ideal of “skillful and effective hockey” that Tarasov taught them, and how powerful friendships can be, even through the testy trials of the game that Fetisov and Kasatonov endure. It also lays plain how scary it was to live through this era in which the superegos of these world powers were so pitted against each other that such showdowns on the ice could really be game changers.
So again, take it from this non sports guy - this exceedingly entertaining and informative sports doc really did it for me.