Film Review – Red Army
I’m not really into sports: playing or watching. Between the two, playing seems to be the better use of time, but whatever. I don’t care. I grew up in a household of college football watchers/screamers and I get that people love their teams, I just don’t get it enough to care. I did go see a WNBA game once, and my friend Justin had to narrate the entire game to me. (Thanks Justin!) I can now say with total believability that women’s basketball is less showboaty than men’s and focuses more on the fundamentals. The only sport I have ever been interested in of my own free will is hockey. Who doesn’t want to see grown-men beat the crap out of each other with sticks? Turns out though, that’s not technically what hockey is about. I’ve seen that movie Miracle about the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Hockey is about national pride, and if there is any doubt in your mind, then you need to watch Red Army, Gabe Polsky’s documentary about the U.S.S.R.’s Red Army Hockey Team.
Polsky puts his focus on Vyacheslav Fetisov. He doesn’t say that Fetisov is the greatest hockey player ever, but I get the feeling he’s a contender for that honor. Fetisov, along with Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, and Alexei Kasatonov, were part of what many consider to be the greatest five-man unit of all time. Fetisov fell in love with hockey as a child, and kept at it until he joined the Red Army’s junior team when he was 16. (It’s called the Red Army Team because at the time, it was actually part of the army, and thus all the best players were available to be drafted and placed on the team. It’s actually called HC CSKA Moscow.) When Fetisov joined the team, it was under the leadership of Anatoli Tarasov, who appears in the film to be some kind of Zen master hockey guru who emphasized the collaborative nature of the game. He got fired for pissing off the powers-that-be and his replacement, Viktor Tikhonov, took over and led the players to even greater success. While Tarasov was innovative and tough, Tikhonov was controlling and focused on discipline. The players lived in barracks for eleven months of the year and were only allowed to think about one thing: hockey. It’s not surprising the team was so successful; they weren’t allowed to have any other interests. But this situation could not hold forever, and one by one, the players managed to negotiate permission to play for the NHL, including Fetisov. (It’s all way more complicated than that, but you gotta watch the movie.)
I know a sports film is doing something right when I can stay interested for the entire thing. My usual sports-related film pleasures involve terrorists plotting to bomb the super bowl or something like that. Lately though, I’ve run into a few good documentaries that have kept me entertained, this film being one of them. It’s an interesting story, with lots of twists and turns, and Polsky uses those events to create dramatic tension, which both does and doesn’t work for me. It works in the sense that I was interested and wanted to know where the story was going. But in the end, I think it sabotages some of the film’s integrity as a documentary. There is a point toward the end where the film reveals what Fetisov is doing now; he’s a Russian politician. (I’ll leave it to the film to fill in the details.) The moment I discovered he was in politics, it put things said earlier by him in a different light. I’m not saying that politicians are liars, but it is not unusual for them to frame the past to support current narratives. When Fetisov is asked if he ever thought of defecting, he denies it. Since he is now in politics, it makes sense to say that, whether it was true or not. I wish I had known all this at the beginning of the movie, so I would have had a better understanding of where he might be prevaricating for the sake of his career.
There were also a few technical things about this film that bugged me – the use of silence to punctuate rather than music and the constant intrusions during the interviews to make us conscious of the filmmakers’ presence. Yeah, we know there is stuff going on behind the scenes, thanks. It’s distracting. But for all my complaining, this is good film. Mostly because the story of cold war national rivalries funneled through the sport of hockey is far more interesting than I could have ever imagined. Fetisov is both prickly and sentimental, and his story is one that should interest non-lovers of hockey as well as fans.