In theory, a documentary about the legendary Iron Curtain Soviet hockey team should be about as niche as a movie can get. It should appeal exclusively to sports aficionados and air only on ESPN in the middle of the night where not a single soul will see it. And yet, Gabe Polsky’s ‘Red Army’ is so damn good that such issues don’t matter.
The movie is so raw, honest, funny, exciting, bizarre and moving that it will appeal to anyone who puts their eyeballs in front of it. This is likely going to be one of the best documentaries that you’ll see all year, so rush out regardless of your sports affiliations or lack thereof. Take it from me, a guy who hates hockey and is somehow also Canadian, so I take a lot of flak for it.
Polsky opens his film with vintage Ronald Reagan and immediately establishes the Cold War stakes that define this era of Soviet hockey. The sport was a massive part of the Russian identity for years, and the teams during the Communist era were legendary, crushing world championships and Olympics competitions with ease. The filmmaker studies the team from the beginning of its dominance to the era when all of the Soviet stars found themselves in the NHL.
At the center of it all is the doc’s most remarkable find, Vyacheslav Fetisov. He was once a teen superstar on the national team who stuck with the sport all the way to a Stanley Cup victory and now works for Vladimir Putin as the Minister of Sport. Hilariously, the first footage we see of Fetisov is the legend taking a phone call and dismissing Polsky’s questions as his career achievements flash on the screen. He clearly wasn’t interested in participating in the movie at first and balks at any suggestion the filmmaker makes of framing his story as a strong individual fighting against a totalitarian machine. Yet Polsky somehow managed to wear him down over time. He’s the center of the film and one of those miracle finds required for any good documentary.
Fetisov recalls growing up in a tiny 400-square-foot apartment with three families where he viewed hockey as the only possible escape. He quickly rose through the ranks as a teen and has nothing but fond memories of working under his first coach, Anatoli Tarasov, who encouraged his players to study chess and ballet, which showed in their remarkable and unique play style. However, one big loss led to army general Viktor Tikhonov taking over the team and running it like a slave ship. Players were locked up in bunkers for eleven months of the year and trained until they literally pissed blood. Conditions were harsh, but the championships kept coming and Fetisov, along with his teammates, share fond memories of being blown away at seeing North American grocery stores during trips abroad for games.
They were also followed by government agents at all times outside of Russian to ensure that no one defected to play in the U.S. Of course, that was an inevitability. When the Russians started invading the NHL, Fetisov was banned from even entering a hockey rink when he refused to share his potential salary with his home country (common practice at the time, if you can believe it). Eventually, Fetisov made his way across the pond and faced racist fan taunting and cold dismissal from his American teammates. But he persevered and eventually ended up on a Detroit Red Wings team filled with his fellow countrymen, and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Fetisov’s life story is such a rich cinematic rollercoaster that it would be hard to believe in fiction. But it’s real and is tremendously entertaining to hear when told through the hockey legend’s naturally deadpan and dismissive speaking style.
Most of the other major players of the era appear on camera in the blisteringly entertaining 76-minute doc, but Polsky was wise enough to know his movie’s star when he spotted Fetisov and keeps him at the center. It’s not the only wise decision the filmmaker made. ‘Red Army’ is exquisitely and slickly produced, bounding between stunning archival footage and well shot talking-heads material. It’s stylized to make maximum entertainment impact, while also clever enough to leave in hilarious conversation gaffes and silences, as well as layering on the necessary political undertones without ever going overboard.
When a documentary is done right, the subject matter isn’t as important to the success as the story and characters. ‘Red Army’ is a prime example. What could have been a dreary history lesson is a vibrant celebration filled with comedy, tragedy, commentary and vigor. It’s a tremendously entertaining and engaging film that demands to be seen by pretty much everyone –even those who detest the sport at the center, like myself.